cu sith mythology dogMistaking the Man for the Myth

My wife and I picked up a copy of the Joseph Campbell Companion during a vacation on North Carolina's outer banks. We were in need of a some reading material for our time away from the beach, and the book appeared worthwhile. By the end of the trip, however, I was slightly ashamed to bring it out in front of family members.

A Clingy Companion

The context for the publication of the text reveals the problems present throughout its pages. Editor Diane K. Osbon "knew" Joseph Campbell through a series of small workshops with him, the point of which seemed to be little more than to bask in his wisdom. Osbon mews about how great it was just to be in the presence of Campbell, as if his ideas would soak into her psyche more efficiently through physical proximity.

This book is a mishmash of selections of text from Campbell's already published books, works from other authors that Campbell liked to refer to, personal lectures from the workshops with Campbell that the Osbon reconstructed from her notes, and strange little verse-like eruptions of unclear origin that don't make much sense. For example, on page 175 Osbon inserts:

If you read Christian mythology
In the Gnostic way,
It makes universal sense.

I'm not going to argue about the concept of these three lines, which makes a good deal of sense. What doesn't make sense to me the way that the author puts what really is just a simple narrative sentence into verse form. What's added by the new format? What does it mean?

Misplaced Devotion

This kind of thoughtless organization of deep thoughts is characteristic of the Joseph Campbell Companion. Because the book is nothing but a collection of short selections, the work doesn't flow in any kind of comprehensive structure. Campbell's words are cut short so that deep ideas are left half-explored, superficially explained.

That's a shame, because the whole point of Campbell's work was to explore deep meaning. I wonder how much editor Osbon actually listened. Campbell's most famous saying was "Follow your bliss." By this he meant that each individual must find his or her meaning on his or her own path. Other individuals or systems of teaching could act as partial guides, but Campbell regarded it as a dangerous misstep to mistake these guides for the bliss itself.

The Joseph Campbell Companion seems to operate from the assumption that the words of Joseph Campbell are important because they were uttered or written by Joseph Campbell. Missing from this book are the careful references Campbell used to support his interpretations. This book is full of teachings, which the editor clearly takes on as a student, not as an independent thinker.

If you really want to understand what Joseph Campbell thought about myth and meaning, I have two pieces of advice:

1. Read some of his original works and leave the Joseph Campbell Companion on the shelf. I particularly suggest The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

2. Don't confuse Campbell's guideposts to the personal quest for meaning as teachings that are important in themselves. Myth and meaning is everywhere, in the commercials on television as much in the old legends of traditional folklore. Don't fall into Osbon's trap of devoting yourself to any individual or system of thought as a replacement for truly independent questing. The answers are out there, but if you don't find them on your own, you will never truly understand what they mean.
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