Trouble in Myth-Land: Campbell and Moyers

Your real self is way "inside"? I don't think so.

Posted Dec 22, 2010 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader

A discussion group I go to decided to dig up Joseph Campbell's The Power of Myth, his TV interviews with Bill Moyers on PBS. Years ago, I was terrifically impressed with Campbell and his flashy way of reading myths. Reading him now, in this TV version, I found bad anthropology and bad psychology.

As for anthropology, his procedure is to mash all the myths together, get a few patterns, the hero's journey, the mother goddess, and so on. Slough off all the details. Then interpret the pattern religiously in terms of a "transcendence" and psychologically by means of a very simple-minded psychology.

I was fresh out of grad school when I first encountered Campbell, and I began happily finding triple goddesses and deaths-and-rebirths and hero's quests in all kinds of literary works. It was great fun! But was I really in touch with some psychological and/or anthropological truths? I think not.

Some years later, I encountered Lévi-Strauss' Structural Anthropology and his reading (for example) of the Oedipus story as resolving a conflict, important in early Greek culture, between sky gods and chthonic (underworld) gods and between overrating and underrating blood relations. Instead of losing the details of the myth, Lévi-Strauss preserved them and made them central to his interpretation. To me as a literary critic, the truth as well as the devil is in the details.

Campbell's anthropology fell far short of that precision. Campbell freely reads in, but he abandons the text or rewrites it so that he can bask in his favorite ideas, the transcendent, the spiritual, the Force. And Moyers, who is a Baptist minister, feeds him his lines. Throw together some Sanskrit and Amerindian and Arthurian stories and Star Wars, all smooshed together into one thing, the hero's journey, which is really "the inward journey" to liberate the unconscious. Which brings us to his psychology.

Where the anthropology was entertaining and not likely to affect the serious study of myth, his psychology poses more of a downside.

Campbell uses a kind of two-valued psychology. The mind divides into two parts. Mind-1 is the thinking, conscious part. A psychoanalyst would call it one's ego. A brain scientist might speak of "executive function" (in the prefrontal cortex). Then, in the Campbellian psychology, there is Mind-2. This is another part in a "deeper" place that is somehow realer. It is the source of freedom and creativity, the "real self," "the power of life locked in the unconscious." To get to it, you make "the inward journey," an idea that reminds me too much of that old Jules Verne yarn, Journey to the Center of the Earth. But when you do, you get to Nirvana, which means "you have found your center of freedom and can act by choice out of that."

Underlying such a psychology is the metaphorical system (in Lakoff and Johnson's sense) THE MIND IS A BODY. Therefore it has an inner and outer, a center and a surface, and a motor system. You can travel from here to there in your mind, as in Campbell's much-quoted slogan, "Follow your bliss." One part of the mind (auditory system) can listen to another part (speaking) so you can say things like, "The world is full of people who have stopped listening to themselves."

Campbell's psychology fails one way by posting a discontinuity between Mind-1 and Mind-2 as well as by the simplicity of this two-valued system. After all, psychoanalysis has taught us, we are acting in response to our unconscious impulses all the time—they are not discontinuous. In the language of brain science, ego, executive function in the prefrontal cortex, does not act in isolation, but it feeds back and forth from just about all the other systems in the brain. In particular, it is richly connected to sub-cortical systems that generate emotion and so motivate us to act. In other words, the mind/brain is not made up of two discrete parts. The mind/brain is a continuity.

To be sure, we commonly speak using that MIND IS A BODY metaphor, but it doesn't help much in actual psychology or psychotherapy. The real problem, though, is Campbell's (and Moyers') identifying Mind-1 with an uptight outer mind and Mind-2 with a free, creative, inner mind. The "inner" part is for some reason—what?—realer or more authentic than the outer part.

When you say, "The world is full of people who have stopped listening to themselves," you are assuming that the self in "themselves" is something that the conscious mind—evidently it is not the self—listens to. The real self is this inner self. You can follow "the trail back to yourself." In a meditative state, you can use the myths that an otherwise interfering society has taught you, "so that in your meditations, you can follow the path right in" or take "the trail back to yourself." You can, in Campbell's much-quoted edict, "Follow your bliss." Thus, Campbell interprets Jonah's whale as "the power of life locked in the unconscious." As for stories of slaying dragons, psychologically, "the dragon is one's own binding of oneself to one's ego." "The problem of the psychiatrist is to disintegrate that dragon."

In Campbell's psychology, this Mind-2 is the source of freedom and creativity, the "real self," "the power of life locked in the unconscious." Getting to it demands, not the complexity of therapy or self-analysis, but a physical act, going from here to there.

No. In psychoanalytic thought, the unconscious is not simply a "center of freedom" but a source of conflict with conscious ego as well as a source for creativity. The task of the therapist is not to slay the dragon of conscious ego but to get the dragon to observe the whole self and what the whole self is doing and feeling and to understand that. The task of the creative person is to relax and let unconscious ideas enter consciousness. The task in therapy is to observe all of oneself.

Campbell's kind of talk, and lord knows, there are hundreds of people out there on the fringes of psychotherapy who talk his way—Campbell's talk leads to a kind of phony self-help. If I just do some magical thing, "take the inward journey," "slay the dragon of ego," "Follow [my] bliss," I can get over my hang-ups and make myself happy. No. To get over your hang-ups, you need to use your conscious intelligence, every bit of it that you have, to observe and understand what you are doing, saying, and feeling and decide what you are going to do about it.

It's not easy, understanding oneself. The journey metaphor for that kind of understanding makes it seem easy, but it's not. It requires a combination of relaxation and, I would say, free association and actively interpreting one's associations. When you make it a "journey" or "getting in touch," you are kidding yourself, or in the case of Campbell you are feeding lucrative self-help pablum to millions of TV viewers.