90 second book review: The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

Another book down from the ever growing reading pile.  I am starting to feel a bit like Sisyphus: every time I finish a book and go back to the pile for the next its 3 books taller.  I guess that is simply a cautionary tale: be careful what you start ;-).
The subject this time around is The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.  I think I first heard about this work on an episode (or two) of the Freedom Feens.  The summary Michael gave of the book interested me, so I added it to my wish list and some time or another in the last few months added to to my cart on Amazon (having not run across it first at HPB).  What I thought the book was about was the so called Hero’s Journey – the basic story arc that all hero stories go through, from Odysseus to Luke Skywalker.  And while that was certainly covered there is a lot more here.

Campbell was a comparative mythologist, which means that he studied a wide range of mythologies in order to find similarities (and differences).  After rather extensive study he discovered what he called the monolith: a common story line shared by all mythologies regardless of origin.  Eastern and Western.  Ancient and Modern.  Monotheistic, pantheistic, polytheistic and even atheistic.  The book is divided into two sections.  The first covers the hero’s journey (departure, initiation and return – each of which has defined components).  The second covers the Cosmogenic cycle (Emanations, The Virgin Birth, Transformations of the Hero, Dissolutions and then an Epilogue – more on that at the end of this post).
At this point I think I need to come clean: this is a deep, deep book with relatively complicated ideas and sentence structure.  At this point, I am certain of only a few things:

  1. I didn’t grok more than half of the meaning that Campbell was trying to convey.
  2. It will take multiple readings / additional life experience / meditation / pondering to grok more than I did.
  3. Even after multiple readings, I’m not sure I will ever grok all of it.

But here are a few things I did take away:

  • As I mentioned before, an understanding of the hero’s journey will ruin (or perhaps enhance) almost every book, movie or TV show you read / see afterwards.  The elements become so obvious that a bit of the mystery of story telling drops away.  It’s a bit like watching The Usual Suspects a second time.  Keyser Söze is in front of you the whole time.
  • Campbell posits that dream and myth are really made up of the same thing.  Myth is simply the collective / shared dream of a society.
  • Campbell seems to be making the argument that there is a parallel between an individual hero’s journey and the universal cycle of creation and destruction, one rising from the other.  And in fact, the mythology of the hero’s journey / monolith is intended to help humanity understand that cycle.
  • In perhaps an accidental case of syntopical reading, this seems to me to be the same idea (or at least in the same realm of ideas) as a central thesis of the book I was reading earlier this year (and put down before completing since it got too deep…perhaps this is a “sign” to pick it back up?) about Godel’s incompleteness theorem: Godel, Escher and Bach by Hofstadter.

What was most interesting to me from this first reading, was the last few pages in the Epilogue.  Here, Campbell ponders the utility of myth in the modern age.  Rather than try to summarize his point, I’ll just quote a passage that I think summarizes the challenge of the modern hero:

It is not only that there is no hiding place for the gods from the searching telescope and microscope; there is no such society any more as the gods once supported.  The social unit is not a carrier of religious content, but an economic-political organization.  Its ideas are not those of the hieratic pantomime, making visible on earth the forms of heaven, but of the secular state, in hard and unremitting competition for material supremacy and resources.  Isolated societies, dream-bounded within a mythologically charged horizon, no longer exist except as resources to be exploited.  And within the progressive societies themselves, every last vestige of the ancient human heritage of ritual, morality, and art is in full decay.
The problem of mankind today, therefore, is precisely the opposite to that of men in the comparatively stable periods of those great co-ordinating mythologies which are now known as lies.  Then all meaning was in the group, in the great anonymous forms, none in the self-expressive individual; today no meaning is in the group – none in the world; all is in the individual.  But there the meaning is absolutely unconscious.  One does not know toward what one moves.  One does not know by what one is propelled.  The lines of communication between the conscious and unconscious zones of the human psyche have all been cut, and we have been split in two.
The hero deed to be wrought is not today what it was in the century of Galileo.  Where there was darkness, now there is light; but also, where light was, there is now darkness.  The modern hero-deed must be that of questing to bring light again to the lost Atlantis of the co-ordinated soul.

I don’t read this a a call to return to the mysticism of the past or as a longing for “the good old days.”  Rather, I think Campbell was pointing out the need for balance (in Hofstadter’s book this is expressed by the idea of the strange loop): the key to understanding the self is in understanding the mankind as a whole and the key to understanding mankind as a whole is understanding the self.
Since the enlightenment, the human experiment has been focused on eliminating the mysteries of the external world through science.  As a result of this increased understanding of the physical world, the draw to mythology as a means of understanding has diminished.  Campbell seems to think, however, that the monomyth was an attempt to help us understand far more about the way reality works than we can comprehend using our five senses*.  Campbell seems to be calling for a moderation, a return the some center where we acknowledge that there are things that are beyond our understanding.  While that area may seem to decrease as science expands, it will always exist and therefore myth will always have a place to help us understand the way things work.  In the last paragraph I quoted above he is suggesting that the place myth might be most useful today is in understanding the inner world of the self.  That journey certainly requires a hero.

* I can hear my objectivist readers yelling “Mystic!” right now.  To be clear: I’m just trying to summarize what I understand Campbell’s ideas to be.  It will take a lot more reflection for me to discern what aspects of his claims are true and which are false.  If you want to help me out with that, the comments section is immediately below ;-).






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