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The Mythologist and the Muses
- Stephen Gerringer

October 15, 2017

(Reproduced here with permission from Pacifica Graduate Institute, USA)

In this Practical Campbell essay, Stephen Gerringer examines the role of the arts in Joseph Campbell's life and work, along the way touching on the roots of creativity.
In my writing and my thinking and my work I've thought of myself as addressing artists and poets and writers. The rest of the world can take it or leave it as far as I'm concerned.

Joseph Campbell, quoted in Fire in the Mind, by Robin & Stephen Larsen (from Campbell's final lecture, to art students), p. 556
When reading Joseph Campbell, many people naturally focus on the universal motifs found in mythologies of different cultures, or find themselves taken by the parallel between mythological themes and one's own life journey - but just as significant is the central role the creative imagination plays in Campbell's world.

This was no affectation - Campbell enjoyed an intimate relationship with the arts all his life, from his college years jamming in a jazz band to receiving the National Arts Club's Gold Medal of Honor for Literature at age eighty. And though scholars such as Marija Gimbutas, Barbara Myerhoff, and David Miller admit Campbell's influence, a host of artists also acknowledge his inspiration, from Robert Bly (poet) and Richard Adams (author -Watership Down), to Martha Graham (choreographer), George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, George Miller (film producers/directors), and even The Grateful Dead (psychedelic rock and roll musicians).

Joseph Campbell was torn between the Way of the Scholar and the Way of the Artist much of his life. Campbell's work speaks for itself - but an understanding of Joseph's lifelong immersion in the arts underscores an intimacy with the Muses we find revealed in that work. I am drawn to explore how the creative impulse has manifested in Campbell's life and work - but first, it seems necessary to ask the nature of that creative spirit.

The creative act is not hanging on, but yielding to new creative movement.

Joseph Campbell, A Joseph Campbell Companion, ed. Diane K. Osbon, p. 262
In the creative moment we are tapped into a realm removed from intellect - what Carl Jung calls "the collective unconscious," and Rollo May refers to as a reach "beyond our own death." From this realm we bring forth forms - or rather, forms bubble up that we might capture, if we are open to them:
When you are in the act of creating, there is an implicit form that is going to be asked to be brought forth, and you have to know how to recognize it. So, they say, you are to learn all the rules and then you must forget them.

As the lyric factor is beginning to move you, the mind is supposed to watch for the emergent form, because anything that comes out of the proper ground is formed already. There is an implicit form intrinsic in it, and your job is to recognize it.
Joseph Campbell, "Creativity," The Mythic Dimension, p.151
But to enter this realm we must find a way to disarm intellect and sidestep the head. Our inner critic stymies creativity by attempting to straitjacket the unconscious - apparently in fear of impulsive, uncontrollable behavior. All too often that hesitation is all that's needed to derail creative momentum.

How then do we bypass that forbidding gatekeeper?

Play is the way.

In Primitive Mythology (The Masks of God, Vol. I), Joseph Campbell draws on historian Johann Huizenga, whose classic work, Homo Ludens ("Man the Player") asserts that myth, ritual, and art have their origins in the "play-sphere" of primal cultures. Campbell reminds us that in the world of pretend "the whole point, at the beginning, is the fun of play, not the rapture of seizure" - but there is indeed a "rapture of seizure" to play, as can be seen watching children caught up in pretend roles experiencing their play as "real."

(Campbell borrows an example from ethnologist Leo Frobenius, who describes a four-year-old girl who is playing Hansel, Gretel, and the Witch with three burnt matches, suddenly frightening herself and calling on her father to protect her from the witch. Even though the little girl knows the match is not a witch, she experiences it as such. In Frobenius's words, "The process is creative, in the highest sense of the word; for, as we have seen, in a little girl a match can become a witch.")

This rapture of seizure is common to myth, ritual, and art, as well as to play:
The reader hardly need be reminded that the images ... when effective, are apprehended with actual physical responses: tears, sighs, interior aches, spontaneous groans, cries, bursts of laughter, wrath, and impulsive deeds. Human experience and human art, that is to say, have succeeded in creating for the human species an environment of sign stimuli that release physical responses and direct them to ends no less effectively than do the signs of nature the instincts of the beasts...

When [British poet] A.E. Housman writes that "poetry is not the thing said but a way of saying it," and when he states again "that the intellect is not the fount of poetry, that it may actually hinder its production, and that it cannot even be trusted to recognize poetry when it is produced," he is no more than reaffirming and lucidly formulating the first axiom of all creative art - whether it be in poetry, music, dance, architecture, painting, or sculpture - which is, namely, that art is not, like science, a logic of references but a release from reference and rendition of immediate experience; a presentation of forms, images, or ideas in such a way that they will communicate, not primarily a thought or even a feeling, but an impact.
Campbell, Primitive Mythology, p.41-42

In the creative act we convey an experience
... from one inward world to another, in such a way that an actual shock of recognition will have been rendered; not a mere statement for the persuasion of the brain, but an effective communication across the void of time and space from one center of consciousness to another...

The mythogenetic zone today is the individual in contact with his own interior life, communicating through his art with those "out there." But to this end communicative signs must be employed: words, images, motions, rhythms, colors, and perfumes, sensations of all kinds, which, however, come to the creative artist from without and inevitably bear associations not only colored by the past but also relevant to the commerce of the day.
Campbell, Creative Mythology(Vol.IV of The Masks of God), p.92, 93

So communication, which takes the spontaneity of play beyond daydreaming and dabbling, is also essential to the creative process - but what is it one communicates?
In one of the Upanishads it says, when the glow of a sunset holds you and you say "Aha," that is the recognition of the divinity. And when you say "Aha" to an art object, that is a recognition of divinity. And what divinity is it? It is your divinity, which is the only divinity there is. We are all phenomenal manifestations of a divine will to live, and that will and the consciousness of life is one in all of us, and that is what artwork expresses.
Campbell, "Creativity," The Mythic Dimension, p.154


Joseph Campbell's own artistic pursuits began with play - playing, that is, in a seven piece jazz band formed with Paul Wincoop in college. Though Joe primarily played sax (he had several different saxophones), he also played different guitars, and even a ukelele (years later he taught himself the balalaika), and helped Wincoop book "fraternity dances and junior proms."

Campbell's musical career proved profitable - according to the Larsens, "...most of his money during college was gotten from these engagements. His bankbook of the time shows a relatively stable balance of about $3000, not an inconsiderable sum of money in 1925." (p. 50)

But for Campbell, music was not about money:
Music is nothing if not rhythm. Rhythm is the instrument of art ... It's wonderful to see a jazz group improvise: when five or six musicians are really tuned in to each other, it's all the same rhythm, and they can't go wrong, even though they never did it that way before.
A Joseph Campbell Companion, p.249
In 1927, after completing his M.A. at Columbia, Campbell spent two years studying in Europe on a Proudfit Scholarship. There, on the Left Bank in Paris, he discovered the world of modern art.

Through close friendships with Angela Gregory, an apprentice sculptor, and Krishnamurti (recognized by Theosophists in those years as Maitreya, the anticipated world messiah), Joseph was admitted to the inner circle of Rodin's student and successor, master sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, whose sculpture echoed powerful mythological themes, invited young Joe to watch him work - a privilege rare for the most dedicated and accomplished sculptors-in-training, and unheard of for an American who wasn't formally studying art; the master, however, recognized in Campbell a serious student, and did not hesitate to impart cardinal artistic insights.

Fifty years later Campbell continued to cite the influence of this master artist:
And this is the key of all art. This is the key of form. The rhythm is implicit in your own body. It is implicit in your expression. And when the rhythm is properly, fortunately achieved, the result is radiance, rapture, beholding it. Why? Because the rhythm before you is the rhythm of nature. It is the rhythm of your nature. Cezanne says somewhere, "Art is a harmony parallel to nature." Art is the rendition of the interface between your nature and the nature out there.

... When I was a student in Paris, back in the 1920s, I knew a sculptor, a very great sculptor, Antoine Bourdelle, who used to say, "L'art fait ressortir les grandes lignes de la nature" [art vividly brings out the grand lines of nature]. And that is all it does. And why is it that you are held in aesthetic arrest? It is because the nature you are looking at is your nature. There is an accord between you and the object, and that is why you say, "Aha!"

Campbell, The Mythic Dimension, p. 154
Campbell spent much of his free time after returning to New York at the studio of his sister's teacher, Cubist sculptor Alexander Archipenko (where he met Isamu Noguchi, noted Japanese-American sculptor and landscape artist, who became a lifelong friend), fitting comfortably into the artistic milieu there.

At the same time Joe made a personal decision to give up the academic paper chase, as life took a decidedly bohemian turn.
So I came back to New York in 1929 and B o oo m m m ! I didn't have a job for five years. My father's hosiery business was in very bad condition in the Crash. I didn't know where I was. The world had blown open. I'm no longer in the Ph.D. bottle. I don't want to go on with my little Arthurian pieces. I had much more exciting things to do - and I didn't know what they were.

I wanted to write, I wanted to be an anthropologist - I didn't know what! A new world was around.
So I said, "To hell with it, Columbia!"

I'm writing short stories. I discover American literature, Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, the whole bunch. Hemingway just knocks me over, those early things of his -In Our Time, Men Without Women, The Sun Also Rises. Like every callow young author, I wanted to write like him; meanwhile Joyce was interesting.

Five years, no job! ... Writing stories nobody would buy.

Joseph Campbell, interviewed by Donald Newlove, "The Professor with a Thousand Faces," Esquire, September, 1977, p. 99
Campbell spent most of those five years living simply in Woodstock, mainly reading and writing, and sharing meals, conversation, and much laughter with members of the thriving local art colony. He did take time out from his retreat to Woodstock to travel across country to the Pacific Coast, where, on Monterey's Cannery Row, he fell in with a group of bohemian spirits that included biologist Ed Ricketts and author John Steinbeck, well before their reputations had solidified.

This was a period of tremendous creative ferment for all three men, described in detail in The Fire in the Mind (traces of their collective adventures appear in disguised form in two of Steinbeck's novels, Cannery Row and Tortilla Flats). Campbell and Steinbeck passed many hours together discussing the nature of writing, while Ricketts and Campbell soon found themselves writing about nature (discussed at length in "Intelligible Design," the November, 2005 Practical Campbell essay).

Campbell's interest in writing proved more than just a passing fancy.

In New York he had sought guidance and instruction from author John Gallishaw, who agreed to serve as his literary agent. Campbell wrote several short stories intended for publication as early as 1929 - "The Semple Way" in March of 1929, "The Love Curve," "Sailor Alone," and "Protest" in the summer of 1929 - and continued all the way through "Voracious," in 1948 - almost twenty years writing short stories ... no passing flirtation that!

Many of the early stories have disappeared. Joe sold only one - "Strictly Platonic," in 1932, to Liberty- for $350 dollars, a sizable figure at the height of the Depression.

(Interesting that, even though we think of Campbell as more teacher than artist, between his substantial earnings playing jazz in college and the fee for "Strictly Platonic," it could be argued that the bulk of Campbell's income, up until he accepted his teaching position at Sarah Lawrence College, derived from the arts.)

The Larsens include synopses of "Strictly Platonic" and several other stories. They describe two short stories from 1945 - "The Maimed King" and "The Belly of the Shark" - with the following:
These stories were never published, but they bristle with powerful images, and suggest a consciousness in love with its own metamorphic capabilities. These stories fall somewhere between the surreal parables of Franz Kafka, the coolly uncompromising depictions of O. Henry, and the interesting possibilities of Ray Bradbury's fantasies.

Stephen & Robin Larsen, A Fire in the Mind, p. 313
Makes one curious. They do, though, offer less flattering critiques of other stories.

Campbell also penned a couple of novel-length works - including "The Mavericks," a treatment of his encounters with Adelle Davis and John and Carol Steinbeck, and "A School for Witches," based on his summer adventure with Ed Ricketts collecting tide pool specimens from Seattle to Sitka, aboard the Grampus.

In his later years, Campbell downplayed those early literary efforts:
I wrote a detective story, which a cleaning woman threw out - thank God! And a novel. The novel was contrived and stupid. You know, a novelist has to be interested in the way things look, in the way the light falls on your sleeves and that kind of thing. That's not my talent and I found that everything I did was stiff and I quit.

Joseph Campbell, interviewed by D.J. Bruckner, "Joseph Campbell: 70 Years of Making Connections," New York Times Book Review, 12/18/83
Though Joseph Campbell published no fiction apart from that one short story, he was generally involved in one creative project after another throughout his life.

Back in New York, Joe and his wife, dancer/choreographer Jean Erdman, were part of a circle of young artists, composers, filmmakers, writers, and other eclectic figures. In the mid 1940s Campbell and John Cage, the avant-garde composer, collaborated on a modern opera, titled Perseus and Andromeda (the opening scene, fragmentary outlines, annotated scores, dialogues, etc., have been found among Joe's papers, though the opera was never completed); with Maya Deren and others Campbell helped form the Creative Film Foundation to nurture independent film artists, eventually serving as president of the nonprofit; after retiring from Sarah Lawrence, he served as an active collaborator and participant with his wife, Jean, in projects at her Theater of the Open Eye ... just a few highlights from decades of active participation in and support of the arts.

I have two ways of writing. One is a programmed way: I know what I'm going to say and I write it and that's third-rate stuff. The wonderful thing is when I get on a certain beam that hits the level of mythic inspiration. From there on I know about three words ahead what I'm going to say. When the writing's going like that I know I'm in the groove ... it feels like riding a wonderful wave ...

Joseph Campbell, interviewed by Tom Collins, In Context, Winter 85/86
The Larsens describe a major lesson Campbell learned from Gallishaw, his literary agent and short story Yoda:
In effect, the writer is like a magician, an illusionist, who provides a scaffold of experiences or images, and the active mind of the beholder - the reader - fills in, producing the illusion of experiencing a "slice of life" or "a dramatic event."

Stephen & Robin Larsen, A Fire in the Mind, p. 128
This strikes me as very much the same approach Campbell applied to his great works, whether The Hero With A Thousand Faces, The Masks of God, or others; he dances beautifully, drawing on this image here, a snatch of myth there, but often only suggesting, allowing "the active mind of the beholder - the reader" to "fill in." I am reminded of an artist who uses the fan brush not to draw a figure, but to create wavy, fuzzy, feathery, "maybe" outlines that suggest an image to the viewer, who then participates in the art, in effect becoming co-creator with the artist by applying his/her own imagination to the painting.

Many is the time I've read Joseph Campbell not noticing all the skillfully couched caveats that allow more than one interpretation, which can sometimes lead to seemingly contradictory conclusions if one tries to nail Campbell down to just one line of thought following a logical, linear, "scientific" rendering - but actually serve to enlarge each thought and image presented, adding depth and dimension, if seen with an artistic - or a mythic - eye.

When traversing the mythscape of symbolic imagery, it helps to remain open to paradox.

It's not that Campbell is fuzzy. Picasso is no more fuzzy -each image Picasso employs opens out to a multitude of possibilities, just as with myth. Any perceived vagueness in Campbell is not because of a lack of clarity to the concepts and images presented, but rather a result of the array of possibilities and
associations, personal and collective, that each image opens out to - annoying, at the very least, for those who expect truth to be rendered in one simple, straightforward formulation.

Such symbols and images are the raw material of art as well as myth. It is no surprise to find that Campbell admits that the visionary artist is his primary audience - which may explain why his work often plays better in Hollywood than in the halls of academia. He says, concerning George Lucas's famous use of
The Hero with a Thousand Faces as a source of inspiration for his Star Wars films:
It's very gratifying to know that this little book of mine is doing what I wanted it to do, namely to inspire an artist whose work is actually moving in the world. The Hero with a Thousand Faces was refused by two publishers; the second one asked me, "Well, who will read it?" Now we know.

Campbell, Pathways to Bliss, p. 132
Ultimately Joe's gift was teaching that which is unteachable - and his writing approaches art in the best Joycean sense, in the amalgamation and assimilation of traditional archetypal images into an opus that draws on ancient mythic themes, yet feels new and fresh and grand at the same time.

At some point along the way Campbell let go the Way of Art and closed the door on "creative writing" - instead, writing creatively for the artist.

Joseph Campbell's short stories may not have enjoyed popular success, but Joseph Campbell's projects, whether writing, lecturing, or teaching, have been grounded in the artistic perspective of the creative imagination. Whether discussing art or myth or literature, image for Campbell is primary, with mystical experience cognate to aesthetic arrest:
The goal of life is rapture. Art is the way we experience it.
A Joseph Campbell Companion, p.245
A case could be made that Campbell is an artist's artist - he immersed himself in the raw material of art, in archetype and image, his work appealing to and inspiring generations of artists in every genre.

An artist is not in the field to achieve, to realize, but to become fulfilled. It's a life-fulfilling, totally different structure ... And it doesn't matter whether you're first-, second-, third-rate in the public eye. Each artist, as I know them, is in fulfillment in his or her own way. It's not a competitive field.

Campbell, The Hero's Journey, p. 94
Perhaps the chief practical conclusion that comes to mind is that creativity does not concern itself with practical conclusions. No one who follows the creative path is guaranteed prosperity, or even security. Campbell pointed out that most artists he had known lived "without knowing how their life is going or how it's going to be." That path takes commitment and courage.

But does creativity remain the domain of artists alone, or is access open to all? For those of us who are not artists, how do we find our way into this realm?

Joseph Campbell reminds us to take play seriously:
Life as an art and art as a game - as action for its own sake, without thought of gain or loss, of praise or blame - is the key, then, to the turning of living itself into a yoga, and art is the means to such a life.

Campbell, Myths to Live By, p. 124
Play is the Way.

Stephen Gerringer
Stephen Gerringer has been a Working Associate at the Joseph Campbell Foundation (JCF) since 2004. His post-college career trajectory interrupted when a major health crisis prompted a deep inward turn, Stephen "dropped out" and spent most of the next decade on the road, thumbing his away across the country on his own hero quest. Stephen did eventually "drop back in," accepting a position teaching English and Literature in junior high school. In addition to authoring the Practical Campbell essay series, Stephen is currently editing a volume compiled from little known print and audio interviews with Joseph Campbell the last fifteen years of his life.

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