THE FIRE IS IN THE MIND


David Miller first gave this presentation on May 18, 1992, at an Open Center conference in New York City entitled, "A Fire in the Mind: An Evaluation of Joseph Campbell's Creative and Intellectual Influence."  It was published in Spring 56 (1994), 78-91, and in Saga: Best New Writings on Mythology, ed. J. Young (Ashland: White Cloud Press, 1996), 55-67.  A version of this essay was presented at a Spring Conference, "Celebrating the Life and Work of Joseph Campbell," sponsored by Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, California, on April 17, 2004.  A recording of this 2004 version is available from Conference Recording Service, 1308 Gilman St., Berkeley, CA 94706.  Website: www.conferencerecording.com.  Telephone: 800-647-1110.

Introduction . . . Who is the true disciple?

Reflection on the work of a person who is admired is fraught with an awkwardness.  People of wisdom have noted the difficulty.  The Hassidic master, Baal Shem Tov, said:

Similarly, Rabbi Messhulam Zusya of Hanipol, just before his death in 1880, said:  "In the coming world they will not ask me, "Why were you not Moses?'  They will ask me `Why were you not Zusya?'"  The point was not lost on Rabbi Noah, who was Rabbi Mordecai's son and who, like these others, stands in the line of great Hassidic leaders.  When Rabbi Noah took his father's place as a Zaddik, his followers soon saw that he behaved differently from his father.  They were troubled and came to ask about this.  "But I do just as my father did," Rabbi Noah said.  "I imitate him to the letter.  He did not imitate anyone, so I do not imitate him."  This wisdom is reminiscent of the advice of Nietzsche that Jung wrote to Freud on March 3, 1912, a short time before the discontinuation of their friendship.  In Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche wrote:  "One repays a teacher badly if one remains only a pupil. . . .  You had not sought yourselves when you found me. . . .  Now I bid you lose me and find yourselves, and only when you have all denied me will I return to you."

Jung himself had said:  "True companionship thrives only when each individual remembers his or her individuality and does not identify with others" [Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 356].  Jung wrote in a letter on January 14, 1946:  "I can hope and wish that nobody becomes Jungian," and in the autobiography he said succinctly:  "Don't imitate!" [86].

The point of all these sayings is clear on the face of it.  The seventeenth-century Zen poet, Basho, expressed it by saying, "I do not seek to follow in the footsteps of men of old:  I seek the things they sought."  It is a point that Joseph Campbell  stressed, as early as 1949, at the end of Hero with a Thousand Faces, where he wrote that "today no meaning is in the group . . . all is in the individual," a point he was continuing to make in 1986 as he spoke to Bill Moyers on television, saying, "Follow your own bliss!"

So, as one reflects on Joseph Campbell's work, the question becomes:  Who is the true follower of Joseph Campbell?  Jesus preached the Kingdom and got the Church.  Jung proclaimed the soul and got the Jung Institute.  Campbell told us to follow our own bliss . . . it would be an extreme irony if, in attempting to follow his advice, we ended by following his bliss!

The question--Who is the true student of Joseph Campbell?-- is like a Zen question.  It is a bit tricky.  One should not imagine too quickly, if ever, that one knows the answer to it.  Is the true follower of Joseph Campbell the one who follows Joseph Campbell, or is it the one who follows his or her own true self?  This latter may even include the possibility of following a bliss which denies that following one's own bliss is the true way!  The matter is extremely awkward.  But it is in the context of this awkwardness that I want to praise Joseph Campbell.

Scholarship . . . The Plumber and the Academic

Specifically, I want to praise Joseph Campbell the scholar.  In doing so I bring a word from the Academy, where, as is well-known, there is considerable controversy concerning the life and work of Joseph Campbell.  It is my purpose to bring some understanding to this controversy, but in order to do this I shall have to say a few words about what it means to be a scholar.  In so doing, I realize that I am giving only one perspective, but I believe it is a perspective that may help to make a few things clearer.

There is much misunderstanding in America today about what it means to be a scholar.  On the one hand, there is an inflation of the scholar.  Think of the popular attitude toward Einstein.  This makes of the scholar a sort of "mana personality," as Jung called it, and turns out not to be a favor, as anyone knows who has been put up on a pedestal by another person's projections.  But, on the other hand, there is a devaluation of the scholar in the American context of what Albert Hofstadter has analyzed as our cultural anti-intellectualism.  So to call someone an "academic" is often a sarcastic put-down, as in saying, "he's just in his head" or "she's on a head-trip and is not into her body," or in thinking universities are "ivory towers."  Negative inflation is just as much an inflation as positive puffing up.  Perhaps a more modestly realistic middle ground can be reached if I say some things that may be very obvious--for which I apologize in advance--but which we often forget.  And in order to say these things, I shall employ a homely metaphor.

Some time ago the disposal in my kitchen sink broke.  I called a plumber who came with an assistant and installed a new one in less than half an hour.  Amazing, I thought as I watched!  What skill he has!  How easily he does it!  How much he knows about wrenches and pipes and water pressure and other things about which I know nothing!  The plumber is a scholar, I thought.  And the scholar is a plumber!  This trope produced in me three or four thoughts.

First, not everyone is a plumber.  It is neither good nor bad to be a plumber; it is just what that person does.  It is simply a particular skill.  It's not great.  But it is not somehow a put-down to be a plumber.  It is not for everyone, but it is OK for some people to be plumbers.  And it is the same with scholars.

Second, plumbers both are and are not impressed with the skill and knowledge of other plumbers.  They are impressed because they know what such skill and knowledge entail; but all plumbers have either that skill and knowledge or analogous skill and knowledge so it is no big deal.  This point is a bit complicated and deserves further amplification.

Everyone is an intellectual.  This is what Aristotle meant when he said that people are thinking animals.  Nobody is not a thinker.  We all think all of the time, consciously or unconsciously, always and already.  Nor is it the case that ideas are in us.  Rather, we are in ideas.  As Jung put it: "It is true that widely accepted ideas are never the personal property of their so-called author; on the contrary, the person is the bondservant of ideas. . .  A person does not make his or her ideas; we could say that a person's ideas make him or her" [Collected Works, vol. 4, para. 769].

Everyone one is an intellectual; everyone, a thinking type.  Jung insisted that his typology not be used to put people in a box, as if some are thinking types and others feeling types, and so on.  Rather, Jung insisted that we are all all of the types all of the time, but sometimes one function is working in a more differentiated way than the others.

Even though everyone is an intellectual, not every intellectual is a scholar.  It is the same with plumbing:  we all use it, but not all of us are plumbers.  Sometimes plumbers talk to the rest of us mortals and tell us how to use the disposal; other times plumbers talk to other plumbers, and the rest of us don't know what they are talking about.

It is the same with scholars.  When they talk with each other, the talk is amazing and not understandable.  That's OK.  They are then scholars being scholarly.  But when scholars talk to the rest of us, they explain things, like plumbers do.  Then they are being academic, whether they are in a college classroom, at a cocktail party, at the Santa Barbara Radisson, or at Pacifica Graduate Institute.  Scholars are often academic when talking to undergraduates, and scholarly when talking to graduate students, like the plumber talking to the apprentice.

A third and crucial point for proper understanding is that plumbers never prove anything.  Rather, they attempt to falsify.  After my plumber installed my disposal, and while still on the floor under my sink, he asked his assistant to turn on the water.  Then he did an odd but important thing.  He reached under the sink with his hand and, in what I thought was a slightly erotic gesture, he felt the pipes fondly and sensitively and gingerly, running his hand over their every joint and curve.  He was attempting to falsify his job, looking for leaks.  Plumbing is never eternally true or ultimately right.  It may spring a leak next week.  But it can be "wrong" here and now.

Philosophers have made the same point about scholarship.  It proves nothing.  It is at best an hypothesis, an idea.  But it can be falsified.  And that is what scholars do.  They look for the leaks and drips in their own work and in the work of all those that have gone before.  Einstein, as Niels Bohr noted, was wrong about many things.  Scholars don't love him or his work less.  But scholars are amused and sometimes sad about those who dogmatically insist that someone's scholarship is "true."

This leads to a fourth point.  Consistency is not a scholarly virtue any more than plumbing is expected always and forever to work.  To be sure, plumbers and scholars do the best they can.  And when they are being academic, rather than scholarly, they do try to be consistent and "right."  But they know better when being scholarly.  They know that consistency is a virtue of small-mindedness.  The seminal scholar is bold enough to be wrong.  "Sin bravely," said Luther.  How often did Freud change his mind?  Paradigms shift.  Jung announced in his autobiography that after a dream of a flying saucer late in his life he realized he was wrong about the relation of the ego to the deep Self.  In the book Science and Sanity, Count Alfred Korzybski said that scholars need training in non-identity.  Gaston Bachelard warned that every educator who notices a lowering of his or her shifting character should be retired.  The I Ching says that change is the only changeless.  Heraclitus noted that all things flow.  Now this is called Deconstruction.  But by whatever name and in whatever time or place, the point,  as Plotinus said, is that a scholar must write "so to say" over all of his or her utterances.  And more recently Wittgenstein said: "Always take back what is said."  Scholars know this deep down.  Socrates spent every day in dialogue seeking a new way to be wrong.

Joseph Campbell was a scholar, but he was not always scholarly.  Sometimes he was academic, as when talking to Jung groups or with Bill Moyers on TV.  I have used Hero with a Thousand Faces and Masks of God in undergraduate classes, but not in graduate seminars.  In the latter, I use Campbell's 1957 Eranos lecture and the essays in Flight of the Wild Gander.   Like plumber's work, Campbell's ideas have in many instances sprung leaks.  They are wrong.  He was wrong about Hainuwele mythology because he included some of Adolf Jensen's commentary in the myth as if it were part of the people's story.  This calls into question his fundamental views of planting mythology in the Pacific Area.  Alan Dundes has noted that Campbell was misleading about hero-myths.  And the view of a primary matriarchy lying behind patriarchal mythology is likely completely false.  These are only a few instances.

But this does not make Campbell less a scholar.  In fact, my experience of him with other scholars in the 60's, when he was being scholarly, for example, at the meetings of the Society of the Arts, Religion and Culture three times a year in New York City, is that he delighted in catching these leaks and drips.  He changed his view of the source of myths in spontaneous parallel development in relation to historical diffusion.  He corrected his mistakes about neolithic dating in the 1969 edition of Primitive Mythology.  And one day, while he was working on Creative Mythology, he seemed to take delight in telling me that he had been wrong about the Arthurian Grail material.  With this insight he was able to go forward and finish the book.

It is odd to say, but to the extent a scholar is bold enough to be wrong, to that degree other scholars love (and, of course, also hate) their colleague, and this happens in the very moment they are showing him or her to have faulty plumbing.  If others claim that a scholar's work is "right" or "true," it simply means that those others, though no less intellectual, are not scholars.  If a scholar claims "truth" for his or her idea, it just means that that person is not for the moment being scholarly.  Academic, perhaps; but not scholarly.  And all scholars do turn academic from time to time.  After all, even plumbers have to pause and explain how to flush the toilet, turn on the hot water, and even how to dispose of garbage.  And, as we all know, there is a good deal of garbage out there.

Mythoclasm . . . Hurt and Humor

It is the garbage about myth that concerns contemporary scholars of myth, and this is in part what some of the controversy over Joseph Campbell is all about.  The postmodern academy has detected some leaks in the mythological plumbing.  I will mention seven nagging drips, together with the some of the names of those who have spotted them.

(1) Myths are social constructions, nurture rather than nature, learned rather than inherited (Naomi Goldenberg, Dorinne Kondo, Carlos Ginzburg).  Those who argue for universal or archetypal truth in myth are authorizing a particular set of attitudes, values, and beliefs.

(2) Myth engages in objectivizing and often reifying thinking, utilizing particular concrete images and plots for abstract ideas, thereby essentializing and carrying a dominate ideology (Martin Heidegger, Jürgen Habermas, Michael Foucault, Roland Barthes).  Purveyors of mythology are engaging in political ideology unwittingly, usually that of the status quo.

(3) Mythographers utilizing a comparative method ignore the philosophical fact that meaning is constituted by difference rather than by identity, and they thereby blur real distinction and tend to unwitting colonialization (Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas, Wendy Doniger, Charles Long).

(4) A revival of Annal School methodology has placed a new emphasis on historicism in the study of myth which works against comparative mythography and makes it seem Romanticist (Jean-Pierre Vernant, Marcel Detienne).

(5) A "Copernican" revolution in studies of violence has argued that myth is a secondary elaboration of ritual behavior which rationalizes victimage (René Girard).

(6) There is a widespread criticism of emphasis upon mythology as a perspective because it disengages and distances ideas and reality in a manner that tends to be individualistic, narcissistic, and solipsistic (sources from #1 and #2, above).

(7) Mythology--it has been argued for some time now--is anachronistic in a post-industrial time of technology and computer-theory (Rudolf Bultmann, Gabriel Vahanian, Marshall McLuhann, Wolfgang Giegerich).

These seven critiques, taken together, represent a powerful myth-bashing and bashing of scholars of myth, particularly comparativists.  I call this "mythoclasm," a word I thought that I had coined for this phenomenon, only to discover that Jerome Bruner had already used it in an essay, "Myth and Identity," published in a book edited by Henry Murray (Myth and Mythmaking) more than forty years ago.  Bruner's and my senses of the word are a bit different.  We both are using the term in analogy with the word "iconoclasm," which means "the smashing of icons or idols."  But my meaning intends to lean in the direction of Roland Barthes' statement:  "[There should be] no semiology which cannot, in the last analysis be acknowledged as semioclasm."  Garbage, by whatever name, smells the same!  The question has to do with the vulnerability of the works of Joseph Campbell to this mythoclastic impulse in the postmodern academy.

Lest one become defensive in the face of the question, it may be well, first, firmly to feel the impulse, the mythoclasm.  Is it not Native American folklore that one should walk in another's moccasins for twenty moons before attempting to engage that other?  So in the case of mythoclasm, it may be well to hear deeply and feel thoroughly the hurt and wound that is being experienced which gives rise to the critique.  What damage have myth and the study of myth caused, even unwittingly and without any malice aforethought?

Mythology has often, alas, functioned as (1) a repressive and oppressive stereotyping of races, religions, and genders by making stereotypes seem archetypal by way of the beauty and power of myth.  Mythicizing the archetype has (2) given the status quo metaphysical sanction and supported political atrocity.  Comparativism (3) colonializes in the name of the dominant group and (4) slights historical distinction and particularlity, even (5) rationalizing scapegoating by refusing to problematize victimage and violence.  Finally, the study of mythology, when being appropriated by New Age spirituality, (6) sometimes refuses moral engagement and responsibility, and it (7) becomes a defense against the realities of those suffering an apocalyptic culture and life.  Much may be suffered by many in the name of mythology and the study of mythology.

But the point is not to wail and gnash the teeth or beat the breast.  The point is to ask oneself to entertain thoughtfully and reflectively the postmodern mythoclastic ideas, to ask oneself without self-pity when and where I am not sensitive to these hurts and wounds, that is, when in my myths and in my study of mythology, while following my own bliss, I without noticing may be keeping someone else from following his or hers.

As for Joseph Campbell, this point means that the question is not primarily whether Joseph Campbell personally was antisemitic, racist, misogynist, or whatever.  The gods will have to decide such matters.  Rather, the question is when and where and how Campbell's method, his mode of thought, without intention to be sure, nonetheless and not unlike any other one of us,  is vulnerable to such charges.  Elie Wiesel has recently written: "All collective judgements are wrong.  Only racists make them."  So there is a question about the morality of the rhetoric when someone says that Jewish myths of creation are such and such or that Chinese myth is this and that.  Did not Edward Said teach us all that "oriental" is a Eurocentric (perhaps Christian) notion?

Perhaps we all know this but forget it.  We especially forget it when we are being academic rather than scholarly.  Joseph Campbell knew it, too.  He said so, when he was being scholarly.  Let me give two examples of Campbell's own mythoclasm, examples of his being postmodern before the time.

In the 1959 edition of Masks of God: Primitive [sic] Mythology, Campbell forceful argued the case that the modern study of mythology grew out of a Northern European, Romantic intuition about Aryan language and culture that was an intellectual rationale for a mythic support of the antisemitic politics of Nazism.  At the end of this 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 men [sic] of action. . . .  The world is now far too small, and men's [sic] stake in sanity too great, for any more of those old games  . . . by which tribesmen [sic] were sustained against their enemies in the days when the serpent still could talk" [12].  Campbell here is demonstrating a sensitivity to the first two critiques mentioned above.

A second example shows Campbell being equally responsive to critiques 3 through 5.  Campbell was not even one paragraph into his 1957 lecture at the Eranos Conference in Ascona, Switzerland, when the audience heard him saying: " . . . since 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, we may let the presentation stand as in illustration of its own thesis" [Flight of the Wild Gander, 120].  I do not think that this sentence can be dismissed by calling it a "witty and ingenious . . . self-depreciation," as the biographers have attempted to do in Fire in the Mind [431].  Campbell wrestled over the question of the relation of Elementargedanken (archetypes) and Volkergedanden (stereotypes), over the difficult problem of morphological parallelism and historical diffusion.  As Robert Segal and others have pointed out, he was not unaware of historical differentiation and particularity, as the Historical Atlas at the end of his life shows.  After all, Campbell wrote about 1000 different "faces" of the hero, not the one face of a 100 heroes, and he called his four-volume work "masks" (plural), not "mask" (singular).

But Campbell also knew that historicism is not the way to go, at least not the literalist historicism of the nineteenth-century Leopold Von Ranke.  Though he did not put it the way Derrida does, he had learned his post-Kantian lessons well enough to know that there is no dehors texte.  One does not get rid of myth (with its mythoclastic problems) by getting rid of myth and by stopping the study of myth.  By turning to literalist historicism, the myth only goes underground and is possibly more demonic for being unconscious.  After all, history is ideological and mythic, too!

Campbell's way through this garbage of myth was precisely by way of myth.  It is as if he knew that there are three possible meanings of "mythoclasm."  The first is that myth can smash people.  This is its repressive and violent function, which Campbell acknowledged in 1959.  The second is that to some people myths are "smashing" (in the vernacular sense, meaning "terrific").  This is implicit in Campbell's Eranos speech, but is even clearer in the popular (i.e., academic, but not scholarly) Bill Moyer's interviews.  But there is a third possible meaning of "mythoclasm."  The term could refer radically  to the fact that  myth can itself have a mythoclastic function, that is, it can smash the oppressive and repressive smashing of the first meaning, as well as the inflated mythoduly (corresponding to "iconoduly," meaning "worship of images") of the second meaning.  Let me explain this in Campbell's own terms.

From the beginning of his scholarly career to the end, Campbell insisted, as he put it already in 1949 in Hero with a Thousand Faces, that "humor is the touchstone of the trully mythological as distinct from the more literal-minded and sentimental theological [and fairy tale] mood" [180].  In the same work he spoke of "the sophistication of the humor of the imagery inflected in a skillful mythological rendition" [178].  Again he said, all great myths are humorous [Hero 361].  Similar remarks may be found in Oriental Mythology [149] and in the Historical Atlas [2.1.111].  And to Bill Moyers he said:  "The imagery of mythology is rendered with humor" [Power of Myth, 220].  The point is that the serious dogmatism in religion, the ideology in culture, and the literalism in historiography are smashed by myth, which, though dealing with powerful ideas and meanings, is after all merely myth.  It is fiction, story, and hypothesis misread as biography, science and history, as Campbell insisted.  Myth is mythoclastic, when it is functioning truly as myth.

The presentation at Eranos in 1957 made this point even more strongly and in scholarly fashion.  In that lecture entitled, "The Symbol without Meaning," Campbell argued that there are two ways of understanding mythic discourse and thinking:  (1) as a symbol functioning for engagement, reference, and identification; or (2) as a symbol functioning for disengagement transport, and differentiation.  The former is especially appealing in the context of agricultural matrices and industrial civilizations, whose myths, and the religion and fairy tales and ideologies that follow from them, seem to engage people to a tribe or nation, to refer to belief systems, and to identify dogmatic and ideological meanings.  The second way is more at home in the context of hunting peoples and, Campbell believed, also in our time.  In this perspective, it is the work of myth to disidentify, disengage, and dislocate.  This is what Derrida will later deconstructively call différance, referring to the power of discourse to be seen and felt as forever deferring closure of meaning.  Campbell appropriately used a mythic image (the wild gander flying into the void) to describe this function.  He explained it this way:

So it is with myth.  If someone assigns a so-called "meaning" to a myth, it then serves to engage energy and consciousness to itself (mythoduly, idolatry of myth and the study of myth).  For myth to work properly, "meaning" must be withdrawn, deferred, itself a catapult into the unknown and the unknowable and to be left behind.  Myth is like a bow disengaging an arrow.  So, Campbell said forcefully in conclusion at Eranos: Myth is always already mythoclastic, or it has become religion or fairy tale, for believers and for innocents without real life-experience.

Conclusion--Don't Myth Joseph Campbell

In the 60's there was a bumper sticker celebrating the beginning of Joseph Campbell's renown and popularity.  It said: "Don't myth Joseph Campbell!"  Perhaps today we need another motto, one that reads:  "Myth Joseph Campbell!"  On his own terms it would be well to take Campbell's studies of myth, like everything else, with a bit of humor, disengaging from them at the same time that we engage them.

Surely we don't myth Joseph Campbell--rather we miss him as scholar--when we turn his work to religion or fairy tale, when we believe in it dogmatically or think it  innocent.  Would it not be more just to be truly mythic about the myth man?

The scholarly critique of Campbell  is not a critique of Campbell, but of Campbell fundamentalism, its humorlessness, its over-engagement, its production of a New Age Chosen People, its lack of "fire in the mind."  It hates talk about Campbell rather than talk about what Campbell talked about.  It loves Campbell for bringing people to the study of myth and for his willingness to be bold enough to be wrong.  But those participating in the controversy hate it when others present Campbell's work as "right" when what they probably mean is that it is useful, compelling, therapeutic, entertaining, engaging, and so on, . . . but "right," that is another matter altogether.

I loved Campbell because he was a scholar, that is, a plumber.  He plumbed the depths of myth, made it all flow, and disposed of a lot of garbage.  And we--or at least some of us--might want to continue to do the same . . . but differently, of course.