Comparativism in a World of Difference
The Legacy of Joseph Campbell to the Postmodern History of Religions

 
David Miller first gave this presentation at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago (1994).  It was published in The Joseph Campbell Foundation Newsletter, 2 (1994), 6-12, and in Common Era: Best New Writings on Religion, ed. S. Scholl (Ashland: White Cloud Press, 1995), 168-77.

I have been asked to initiate a discussion  on the question of the importance of the work of Joseph Campbell to the future of the study of the history of religions.  To be sure, this is a controversial topic.  One the one hand, there are those perhaps Romantic enthusaists  (mostly persons who are not professional scholars teaching in graduate centers of the history of religions) who affirm the relevance of Campbell's work because of the insight of its comparativist hermeneutic, as well as its geographical and temporal scope.  On the other hand, there are those perhaps Classic and sometimes historicist detractors (mostly professional scholars teaching in graduate centers of the history of religions) who decry the relevance of Campbell's work precisely because of its comparativist hermeneutic and its impossible attempt to be broad.  There is something naïve about both of these positions.  In the case of the enthusiasts, there is a naïvete about scholarship and about the postmodern condition.  Among the detractors,  there is a naïvete about Campbell's work and a curiously unscholarly lumping together of Eliade, Jung, and Campbell on the issue of archetypes and universals, a comparing of comparativists that simply will not bear close analysis.  The academics, I believe, are as naïve and as unscholarly in their reading of Campbell as are the anti-academics.

My own position differs with both.  It  agrees with the first group about the relevance of Campbell to the future of the study of the history of religions, even if not for that group's reason.  Rather my position concurs with the reasoning of the second group concerning the irrelevance of a certain kind of universalizing, archetypal comparativism.  However, my disagreement with the second group is in their attribution of this comparativism to Campbell.  A careful reading of his whole corpus demonstrates that he simply was not the comparativist that either the enthusiasts or the detractors imagine in their polemical and ideological apologetics, whether pro or con.


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The key to any future study of the history of religions has to do with the affirmation of the value of difference and otherness.  The sins of academic and intellectual colonialism have been both  of commision and of ommision.  Edward Said and Charles Long, not to mention the many permutations of Foucaultian and feminist perspectives, have sensitized all to the witting and/or unwitting reduction of the thousand faces of multicultural religiosity to one monomythic understanding.  The four-thousand year Platonic and Aristotelian experiment with meaning as identification, as adaequatio intellectus ad rei, as homoiosis, as correspondentia, as analogia, as a meaning being like that which it is like, is ended, smashed to smithereens, not only by Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida, and the deconstructionists, but also by the postmodern social facts of  a planetary politics of cultural diversity, each small unit of which, not only seeks, but is willing to kill for its difference.  Différance--as Derrida has put it neologistically--represents differences demanding the foreclosure of closures of signification, deferring identifications and comparisons in the global melting pot where no one melted.  For the time being in the study of religions the experiment will be, not with identity, but with difference, not with similarity, but with otherness.  Our question, of course, is how Campbell's work, itself so identified with identity, similarity, and comparison (as it has been by blissful followers and carping critics alike)  is fated in such a future,  that is,  its serious future in the scholarly study of the history of religions, not its future in the New Age marketplace which will always cling hysterically  to a Romantic perspective that produces the very  nihilism it wishes angelically to transcend.

The comparativist matter is complicated, as is indicated by the misunderstanding that leads to the uncritical lumping together of  Jung, Eliade, and Campbell to which I have already alluded.  Robert Segal has questioned this before me, though few  seem to have noticed.  Perhaps an account of an incident involving Jung and Eliade in 1955 may more poignantly make the point concerning comparativist confusion and misunderstanding.  In the context of their friendship at the Eranos Conferences, Eliade had sent Jung a copy of his then new book on Yoga in which the former speaks about the archetypal significance of mandala images and quotes Jung in support of the point.  Eliade thought he was agreeing with what he took to be  Jung's universal and comparativist point on such imagery in his patient's drawings.  Much to his surprise, instead of receiving a pleasant thank-you note, Eliade received in reply a diatribe that indicated a profound difference between a philosopohical (Platonic/Augustinian) use of the notion of archetype in a phenomenology and a depth psychological use of what many take to be the same notion [see Jung, Letters, II.210-12 (19 January 1955)].  So crucial is the difference that it seems nearly to have destroyed the personal friendship between the two men  until Eliade  changed the citation of Jung in a later edition of the work and wrote an apology in the introduction to another work [see Eliade, Yoga, 219-27; Cosmos and History, Torchbook edition, 1959, vii-ix].

The difference between an observation of apparent phenomenological likenesses and an observation of similar psychological functions of events or structures of meaning that are unlike each other in appearance is somewhat of the same order as Plotinus' noting a difference between likenesses of like things and likenesses of unlike things, the later of which the Neoplatonic philosopher thought more important [Enneads, I.ii.2-6].  In these terms, Eliade is closer to Plato and Jung to Plotinus.  But Campbell's work, in the main, represents yet a third position.  It is like Eliade in its phenomenology of mythic image and narrative, but it is like Jung in stressing unlikeness, as I shall attempt to demonstrate against common opinion both pro and con.  That is, Campbell is neither Eliadian nor Jungian, in spite of his regard for and knowledge of both men's work.  This means that a discussion of Campbell's importance for the future of the study of the history of religions should be distinguished from a discussion of the importance of Eliade and Jung for the same.  To refer to Campbell as Jungian or to refer to Eliade as Campbellian so as to dismiss one or the other is simply the name-calling opprobrium of an uniformed ideologism which ironically would dismiss all comparativism by itself ironically using  comparativist logic.

One might have noticed that even in the title of Campbell's early work, the phrase did not read the thousand heroes with one face, even if one were unable to take seriously what is always ignored in readings of Hero with a Thousand Faces:  namely, the radical literary theory regarding humor and the comedic at the beginning and the Nietzscheanism so beloved by postmodern thinkers at the end wherein Cambpell speaks directly about diverse modulations in the human face.  Indeed, Campbell's major work was about masks (plural differences), not mask (singular meaning).  If the diction of his writing often seems by contemporary tastes archaic and patriarchal in matters of gender and race, nonetheless Campbell knew full well that mythology has often--alas!--functioned repressively and oppresively with regard to race, religion and gender by making stereotypes seem archetypal by way of the power and beauty of mythic narrative and image.  He knew that mythicizing the archetype has given the status quo metaphysical sanction and has supported political atrocity (as he wrote, for example, about Tibet).  He knew that comparativist method colonializes in the name of the dominant group and can blur historical distinctness and particularity, even rationalizing scapegoating by refusing to problematize victimage and violence.  He knew, too, that the study of mythology, if appropriated by certain forms of spirituality, refuses moral engagement and responsibility, and becomes a defense against the realities of those suffering an apocalyptic culture and life.  In short, Campbell was not blind to the latter day insight of such recent mythoclasts and anticomparativists as Naomi Goldenberg, Carlos Ginzburg, Jürgen Habermas, Roland Barthes, Wendy Doniger, Marcel Detienne, René Girard, Alan Dundes, Charles Long, Michel Foucault, and others.  Campbell, like these, knew that the danger of  following one's own bliss intellectually, as well as fundamentalistically in faith and action, is that it may, even without malice or intention, keep someone else from following his or her equally valid and mutually exclusive bliss.

In the 1959 edition of Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, Campbell forcefully argued the case that the modern study of mythology grew out of a Northern European, Romantic intuition about Aryan language and culture that became an intellectual rationale and mythic support for the antisemitic politics of Nazism.  At the end of this historically explicated argument, Campbell mythoclastically warned:  "Clearly mythology is no toy for children, nor is it a matter of archaic, merely scholarly concern, of no moment to ... action ....  The world is now far too small, and  [the] ... stake in sanity too great, for any more of those old games of Chosen Folk ... by which tribesmen were sustained against their enemies in the days when the serpent still could talk [12].  At the Eranos Conference in 1957, Campbell began by asserting that "...one of the main themes of my subject is to be that of the provincial character of all that we are prone to regard as universal," and he added that his own presentation would be "an illustration of its own thesis" [Flight 120].  Campbell's enthusiasts and detractors alike are joined in not attending to such statements, let alone in taking them with any seriousness [see the dismissal of the Eranos opening by Campbell's biographers:  Fire in the Mind, 431].  Yet serious utterances such as these, alligned as they are in advance with postmodern insight, might be a clue that the importance of Campbell's work for the future study of the history of religions does not lie in the TV series, the video- and audio-tape interviews, the popular workshops, as much as it does in the sites of Campbell's serious scholarship.  After all, who of us has not spoken to lay groups with enthusiasm and in uncomplicated ways?


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The Eranos lecture of 1957 can serve as an example of Campbell's serious work, little known by enthusiasts, and ignored by critics.  The lecture was entitled "The Symbol without Meaning."  In it Campbell argued that there have been two ways of understanding mythic discourse and thinking:  (1) as a symbol functioning for engagement, reference, and identification;  and (2) as a symbol functioning for disengagement, transport, and differentiation.  "When the symbol is functioning for engagement, the cognitive faculties are held fascinated by and bound to the symbol itself, and are thus simultaneously informed by and protected from the unknown.  But when the symbol is functioning for disengagement, transport, and metamorphosis, it becomes a catapult to be left behind" [Flight 169].

In hunting societies (paleolithic and contemporary), religious meaning is focussed on the individual--the individual fast for the gaining of vision, or on hierophantic realizations.  This does not imply a rupture with society and world, as critics of Campbell assert incorrectly that he argued.  Rather it is a separating of oneself from the "comparatively trivial attitude toward the human spirit and the world" [Masks...Primitive 229, 242, 252-54, 263, 348], a conversion in myth and ritual from family to universe, from particular tribe to deep structures.  Meaning is in dis-engaging from the collective sociological unit;  the particularity has a different site, a location in otherness.

But this all changed, Campbell argued, at the time of the agricultural revolution in different portions of the world.  In neolithic planting societies, one imagined a falling out of Edenic existence, out of the universal, into history and time.  Now the sociology of the collective unit (family, religion, tribe, state, nation) dictated religious meaning.  Conversion was no longer from family to cosmos and planet;  it was from family to tribe or religion or nation.  In this there was little room for individual deviation and variation in the religious realm.  Spiritual significance now was in relation to neighbor (not other), to village life (not world), to calendar (not cosmos or eco-sphere).  Extra ecclesium nulla salus:  outside the particular group there could be no salvation.  In this way religion and myth engage literalistically and fundamentalistically in a particular literalism without--as Calmpbell's literary theory stressed--humor.

Campbell adjudged that people today no longer live in the neolithic agricultural paradigm of meaning, though they repeat it by unconscious habit.  I spent seven years with Campbell as an officer of the Society for the Arts, Religion, and Culture in New York City discussing in private and in public the topic of "what are the myths of a mythless time."    Like the American poet, Wallace Stevens, Campbell knew that "here / in Connecticut, we never lived in a time / when mythology was possible."  As he put it to Bill Moyers on Public Television:  "What we have today is a demythologized world" [Power 9].  The so-called "death of God" and the death of the gods was axiomatic for him.  Campbell was postmodern before his time.

This is especially obvious in the conclusions Campbell drew at Eranos in 1957.  In a world of science and computer bits and bytes, a scattered world of multicultural chaos, the meaning of "meaning" that implies an engagement, an attach-ment, an identification, and a comparison is now, as he put it, "like the carapace of a crayfish or cocoon of a butterfly that has been cracked, sloughed off and left behind" [Flight 130].  Today, religious signification is semiotic and paratactic, functioning, as Campbell said,  like a bow.  "The bow, in order to function as a bow and not as a snare, must have no meaning whatsoever in itself...beyond that of being an agent for disengagement from itself" [178].  If religious and mythic discourse is thought to "mean" something, it serves for engagement of energy and consciousness to itself, and can become the religious and theological basis for mean-spiritedness and, in extreme cases, terrorism.  More appropriate to a future world order, would be to see such discourse as mythic, pointing to the unknown and the unknowable, such that foreclosure of signigication is withdrawn, so that, like a bow, it can send the arrow forth from itself.  In this view, as Campbell said:  "The world, the entire universe, its god and all, has become a symbol without meaning.... Our meaning is now the meaning that is no meaning;  for no fixed term of reference can be drawn" [190].  Or, as Campbell told Moyers thirty years later:  "People say that what we're all seeking is meaning for life.  I don't think that's what we're really seeking.  I think that what we're seeking is an experience of being alive" [Power 5f].  "What," Campbell asked Moyers, "is the meaning of a flower, and having no meaning should the flower then not be?"  "There's no meaning.  What's the meaning of the universe?  What's the meaning of a flea?  It's just there.  That's it" [6].
 

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This is, of course, radical in the extreme ... as radical as Angelus Silesius' "rose that is without why," or the Zen master's one-hand thunder-clap, or Meister Eckhart's prayer to God that he may be rid of "God."  It is the perspective that would permit Campbell to demonstrate the anomaly of certain ideologies and theologies in a postmodern time by contextualizing the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin astronomically.   Is one to image a human body rising from this earth, to pass beyond the

The image is, of course, ridiculous, bordering on blasphemy.  That is Campbell's point, of course!  To attempt to sustain anachronistic, neolithic theological perspectives on identifiable meanings is a form of comparativism that is absurd and that does an injustice to one's own and an other's mythos.

Campbell is even firmer about this point, though not less humorously, when at the end of his last book, the second volume of the Historical Atlas of World Mythology, he writes: This is Campbell being, not only serious, but also postmodern before its time.  It implies a hermeneutic beyond meaning and meaninglessness, not unlike Derrida's notion of scattered epistemological reference through  dissemination,  or Lacan's radicalized version of Saussure's semiotics in which language functions as a floating arbitrary signifier deprived of any necessary signified.  But these references that I have made to Campbell's serious methodological work are not only  instances of his being au courrant  forty years before the flow of critical theory from France;  they also imply his work's importance for the future study of the history of religions.

Campbell knew that historicism is not a possible way to go following upon the nihilistic collapse of Romanticist religious and mythological hermeneutics.  Though he did not put it in the terms of the postmodern lexicon, Campbell had learned his post-Kantian lessons well enough to know that there is no dehors texte.  This is to say, that he knew that one does not get rid of myth's ideologism by getting rid of the comparativist study of myth. Mythos will be there, always and already, even in mythless times and methods. Turning to Annales-like historicism, Girardian ritualism, or Von Rankean literalism in the study of the history of religions only drives mythic ideologism  underground and possibly renders it thereby even more stereotypically demonic by reason of its being unconscious.  Historicism and particularism are mythologies and ideologies, too.  Ask Aunt Sarah.  She knows that the social scientization of the study of myth and religion is as naïve about the transparency of mythic language to human meanings as is Romanticist comparativism.  This is why Campbell said at the beginning of his Eranos lecture that all statements about myth and religion betray the provincialism and ideology of their authors ... and he knew that that includes this statement, too.

It is out of the humility that such an insight produces that one is permitted to go forward into the future of the study of the history of that whose object will always already be unknown and unknowable.  Into the opening provided by that humility, both historical studies and comparative studies may and surely will proceed, but hopefully with a difference.  For though Campbell knew the fascist and colonializing risks, though he knew that there would always be literalist and fundamentalist enthusiasts, even in myth-studies, it did not deter him from continuing the work of historical particularity, as for example in the Atlas, as well as the work of comparativism based, not on likeness, but on difference.  And in this going forward in a prepostmodern context, Campbell demonstrated the dialectic of there being no particular judgments without implied comparisons and there being no identification of comparisons without assumptions of individual difference.

In this, Campbell was a forerunner to what is just now aborning in the history of religions.  I mean a new comparativism based on difference--a sort of post-postmodernist hermeneutic, if the phrase may be permitted--exemplified, for example, in Jonathan Z. Smith's Drudgery Divine  and his "Differential Equations: On Constructing the 'Other,'" and, to give another example, in Howard Eilberg-Schwartz' The Savage in Judaism.  Campbell's importance to this new work is to help those of us who are enthusiasts to  keep in mind that all comparativism is not the same and to help those of us who are critical theorists to remember that comparativism by any other name (such as historical non-comparativism) may not be as free of ideological stench as it imagines.  Indeed, it may not smell as sweet as Angelus Silesius' rose which is without why.