Sunday, April 17th, 2011

The Power of MythThe Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is my first first-person experience with Campbell. And I find it an incredibly frustrating book.

There are parts that are wonderful: when Campbell takes a few moments to tell some of the myths that have been floating around for years. Or when he compares the motifs in multiple myths from different cultures in different parts of the world. Campbell was clearly a master story-teller, and even in just a couple of sentences, he really makes these ancient stories come alive.

Similarly, the comparisons really help draw me in to the idea of a single world-wide culture of humanity. As a sci-fi fan, this is hardly a foreign idea; but a shared mythology really drives home the point that all human beings share some really fundamental experiences.

Where Campbell starts to lose me is when he insists that these shared experiences (birth, adolescence, death, the physical act of eating something that used to be alive, etc.) are indicative of some Mystery that underwrites the universe. Here he becomes less historian or anthropologist and more of a mystic. By using the word "transcendence" a lot, he seems to think that it doesn’t matter that there’s no evidence or reason to think that this Mystery is real and not merely a by-product of our own brains firing in a pattern fixed by millions of years of evolution.

As a rationalist or realist or materialist or skeptic or whatever label you find on me, I find this sort of spiritualism pointless and silly. Beyond that, I think that focusing on this fanciful mystery so heavily can really lead to serious problems with living. At one point, Campbell says something to the effect of "But you can’t try to make life better. This is all there is. You have to learn to accept it." But that’s absurdly untrue. Thanks to people who refused to learn to accept it, we’ve built democracies that are more-or-less egalitarian (and thousands of times better for the average citizen than the brutal civilizations that gave us some of these myths). Thanks to people who refused to learn to accept life, we’ve developed communications technologies that allow mothers to not have to give up their children to distance in quite the same way that they had to before. We’ve developed medicine that give people more time than ever with their loved ones (including Campbell himself who was in his eighties when this conversation took place). And, it’s entirely possible that we’ll defeat death one day. Not in the mythical way that Campbell celebrates death leading to rebirth of a new generation. But actually making it so that death just doesn’t happen anymore (at least, not death of old age: that’s the first goal and it seems perfectly attainable in the next couple of centuries).

Think of that.

And none of this could ever happen if people took Campbell’s advice of taking nature-as-it-is as the the only good way of the world. This approach made perfect sense to tribal hunter-gathers a thousand year’s ago. I think it’s possible that, as a species, we’ve moved past that just a little. While nature is red in tooth and claw, maybe we can do a little better than that.

Campbell also commits one of my major pet peeves. At one point, he says something to the effect of "scientists don’t know what a particle. Is it a wave? Is it a thing? They don’t know!". From this, he concludes that there must be a magic energy field in the universe which gives everything life. Or something. It’s "transcendent" so he doesn’t feel that he has to be specific.

This perversion of science really annoys me. Aside from getting the particle physics wrong (it’s not that we "don’t know". It’s that the duality is actually what’s going on. Or something. I’m also not a physicist so I won’t pretend to have a real understanding of any of this!), he also really fails to understand the point of science. Scientists (and, through them, our entire civilization) is trying to understand the innermost workings of the universe. You can never do that if, when you find a question you don’t know the answer to, you give up and say "Magic!".

The saddest thing is that this book has far more bad spiritualism than it does good history. Hence my low rating. Ultimately, I think the myths of our past have more to teach us about who we were and we are. Campbell thinks they also teach us what we should be. I find that notion to be abhorrent: we can be so much better than we are or were; and if we’re going to settle for that, then we may as well give up. There’s no more point to us.

Since the book is so much of this, I can’t love it or even like it. Fortunately, there’s enough in here that I do like (in bits and pieces), that I’m still looking forward to reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces. I understand that this is more historical and factual. Also, Campbell wrote it when he was much younger. So I’m hoping that the religious and spiritual life he made developed later in life won’t pervade it so much.

I suppose I’ll just have to find out.

Comments are currently closed for this post.