I want to live heroically. And I write about it. You guys know the drill.
Often, that means people want to talk to me about Joseph Campbell. And every time, I cringe.
Who is Joseph Campbell
Some of you might not know this name (I won’t judge), so I’ll do my best to fill you in. Joseph Campbell was an author who wrote about world myth. He was an avid reader, traveled quite a bit, and knew his topic well. There’s no denying that Campbell digested a lot of myth in his day. Oh yeah, and Hollywood likes him.
Campbell’s writing focuses on finding universal patterns in myths from around the world. If you know much about the study of myth, this should already be setting off alarms for you. He was heavily influenced by Carl Jung, and decided that myths reflect universal archetypes in the human mind. He believed that all myths tell a single story. He called this the “monomyth.”
So What’s the Problem with JC?
I want to point out that I don’t hate Campbell. His personal philosophy was that people should pursue their passions. I’m down with that. It’s good stuff.
But there are a variety of problems with his work on mythology. Most of these aren’t new; they’ve been covered by plenty of scholars. Let’s get them out of the way quickly:
- All myths don’t tell a single story. There are motifs common to some (not all) hero myths, but that doesn’t mean they have the same lesson or meaning behind them. When you decide on a pattern that you’re sure is right it’s easy to ignore stories that don’t fit or reinterpret stories that just kinda-sorta fit. That’s exactly what Campbell did.
- The idea of a monomyth undermines what’s greatest about mythology. Myths carry a tremendous amount of cultural content. The entire worldview of a society, its values and highest aspirations, are encoded in myth. This value-content is unique to each culture’s mythology, and it’s what makes myth magical. Focusing on the things that are the same between all cultures means ignoring the heart of myth.
- When you universalize myth, you don’t. Any attempt to define the universal story of myth will end up defining the author’s own personal bias. In Campbell’s case, he focused primarily on male mythic figures and stories that agreed with his own theosophical views. The monomyth he tells resonates strongly with Western audiences because it was written by a Westerner.
If any of this seems too nitpicky or academic, let me put it this way:
In the 1940s a white American man wrote about the sacred myths of other cultures. He decided he knew what they meant better than those cultures themselves did.
The problem with this should be self-evident.
Being an Actual Hero
Okay, so all those problems I just outlined? None of those are my beef with Joseph Campbell. If I twitched every time a white author said something ethnocentric, I’d need seizure medication to get near a library.
No, my problem with Campbell is simple: I want to be an actual hero.
You know, the kind where you do stuff that saves lives or makes people safer.
Campbell’s work doesn’t lend itself to that. Typically, when someone uses the monomyth to talk about living heroically, it goes something like this:
- Hey, cool, there’s this story cycle that all heroic myths follow!
- What if I took that narrative and applied it to my life?
- Hmm, some events in my life kind of correspond to things in the narrative.
- So if I re-imagine my life as following this monomyth….
- …I’m a hero in my own story!
And that’s great. It’s a way for engineers, bus operators, sales VPs, moms and dads, doctors and teachers, and the guy at the coffee shop with the awesome teeth to feel good about themselves. It might also help them guide their choices, by providing a framework for making strong decisions.
I respect that.
But what it really boils down to is telling a story. And that is unlikely in the extreme to save lives.
Literature and Taking Action
Campbell’s approach pretty much guarantees that his work must follow this arc. When Campbell fell in love with Eastern religion, he didn’t set about mastering meditation and chanting practices. When he pursued the question of heroism, he didn’t train his body or confront dangerous challenges. In both cases, he began by reading stories.
Campbell’s approach was primarily literary. And by focusing on a universal myth, he marginalized all the details that root literature in actual experience: cultural customs, religious practices, historic figures, proverbs and mores. He chose to abstract away from a rich body of lore based on human experience and write a new story altogether.
There’s a value to this literary approach. Last month I tweeted asking why people like JC. Many people responded by saying he made mythology interesting. He’s the one who got them into mythology in the first place. He was definitely a popularizer of myth, and that’s pretty awesome.
The problem is that his name has become synonymous with heroism, and he says absolutely nothing meaningful about heroism.
A literary pattern is not heroism. Templating a narrative onto our own lives is not the tool by which heroes are made. An accountant who compares her college days to the “Belly of the Whale” stage of the monomyth is still an accountant. A father of three who views selling his house as the “Road of Trials” stage is still a father of three.
And I don’t want to disparage that. Accountants have saved my ass numerous times (thank you Tracy!). Dads do one of the most important jobs on earth, just like moms do.
But does that make them heroic?
When I think of becoming heroic, I think of the actions that actual heroes took that made them into what they were. These don’t correspond well with the stages of the monomyth that Campbell describes.
In the case of mythical heroes, receiving some kind of lengthy training seems prominent. Having actual skills is nice.
In the case of historic heroes (Che Guevara comes to mind), traveling widely is a recurring theme. Travel shows you a much wider section of the human condition. It gives you a deeper sense of what’s at stake when dads and accountants have no one to stand up for them.
In the monomyth, the literary hero is yanked into adventure by some greater force. In the real world, there is no call to adventure. If you see a chance to do something heroic and you refuse the call, nothing will pull you forward. Being a hero is not a destiny, it’s a choice—the choice to act when no one else will.
Join the Conversation
What do you think? What does it mean to be heroic, and does Joseph Campbell’s writing help at all? Is it even important to be “heroic” in this day and age? And can it mean the same thing it did in ages past? I love seeing the discussion evolve. Comment and share your thoughts.
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