and Uncle Joe
[Note: down to the stars
this article is identical to "The
Influence of Buddhism."]
To understand the point of view
expressed in the Realize! pages, you must understand two
of the most important influences on my thinking. One of
these is the work of Joseph Campbell; the other is my studies in
Until my divorce in 1990, I was pretty
much a "Western Civ" kind of guy, interested in Greek
philosophy, Medieval scholasticism, and British
literature. My majors in university were English and philosophy,
and-- as I was in those days an "Evangelical
Christian"-- I used these disciplines to explore (and
ultimately justify) my belief in the Bible as The Word of God.
All this changed when my wife left and
everything I knew was cut loose from its moorings.
Unlike some, who find that such
experiences strengthen their faith, I found mine shattered. The
"faith community" that my wife and I had been a part
of failed me utterly, and I started searching for something...more.
As mentioned above, this search
eventually led me to the Buddhist path. But before I
arrived there, I needed a transitional point of view, a
"world view" that could encompass my previous
dedication to Western thinking and Christianity, as well as my
emerging interest in Native American practices, world religions,
and, ultimately, Buddhism.
I found this in the ideas of Joseph
The capsule biography of Campbell in his
Penguin publications reads as follows:
Joseph Campbell was interested in
mythology since his childhood in New York, when he read books
about American Indians, frequently visited the American Museum
of Natural History, and was fascinated by the museum's
collection of totem poles. He earned his B.A. and M.A. degrees
at Columbia in 1925 and 1927 and went on to study medieval
French and Sanskrit at the universities of Paris and Munich.
After a period in California, where he encountered John
Steinbeck and the biologist Ed Ricketts, he taught at the
Canterbury School, then, in 1934, joined the literature
department at Sarah Lawrence College, a post he retained for
many years. During the 1940s and '50s, he helped Swami
Nikhilananda to translate the Upanishads and The Gospel of
Sri Ramakrishna. The many books by Professor Campbell
include The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Myths to Live
By, The Flight of the Wild Gander, and The Mythic
Image. He edited The Portable Arabian Nights, The
Portable Jung, and other works. He died in 1987.
biographical references can be found on my Joseph
Campbell Index page. For our consideration here, however, a
few key points will do:
- 1924: Young Campbell meets Jiddu
Krishnamurti on a trans-Atlantic crossing; the two young men
become close friends
- 1933: Campbell spends one year
reading (in several languages) and writing
- 1934: Campbell takes a position
teaching literature at Sarah
Lawrence College, where he will remain until his retirement
- 1943: Indologist Heinrich Zimmer
dies; his widow asks Campbell to see several posthumous
works into print, including Myths
and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, The
King and the Corpse, Philosophies of India,
and the two-volume The Art of Indian Asia.
- 1949: The
Hero with a Thousand Faces presents the pattern found
universally in hero stories. George Lucas would later
find in this work inspiration for his Star Wars
Campbell spends one year traveling in India, Southeast Asia,
- 1959-1968: Campbell publishes his
magnum opus, The Masks of God, in four volumes: Primitive
(1959), Oriental Mythology (1962), Occidental
Mythology (1964), and Creative Mythology
- 1988: PBS first broadcasts Joseph
Campbell and The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers, a six-hour
series of interviews created in the last years before
Campbell's death in 1987.
As I've already mentioned, I encountered
Joseph Campbell's thinking at a crossroads in my life.
Looking at the brief items from his biography above, it's
interesting to note how many of them have resonance for me:
reading, teaching literature, Asia (including Japan), and so
on. This may not be entirely coincidental. In the
years just after my divorce, I was fortunate to come under the
influence of a couple of fascinating characters. Dan and
Nancy Booth were teachers at the school where I was then
teaching, and were light-years ahead of me in their studies of
religion, psychology, and literature. They patiently led
me into their world, Dan by giving me Frank Waters' Pumpkin
Seed Point (about the Hopi), and Nancy (as my department
head) by challenging me to challenge my students to see
literature as transformative.
Along with my seventh-graders (students
years old), I was reading The Hobbit, A Christmas
Carol, The Sword in the Stone, and A Midsummer
Night's Dream. It was Nancy who encouraged me to help
my students see that they were Bilbo, Scrooge, and
"The Wart"; and that the waking world of Shakespeare's
mortals was inextricably intertwined with the nighttime world of
the fairies, in the text as in the world of adolescence.
Whether it was my "Southwestern
Studies" with Dan (which I eventually taught in a formal
course at the school) or my field trips to the Southwest (twice
with students); my 1990 Christmas driving the length of Baja
California, or my repeated viewing s of Campbell's The Power
of Myth (first lent to me by Dan); my reading of Parabola
magazine or my long discussions with students and other
teachers: my years at Campbell Hall, while painful in many ways,
were also extremely formative thanks to the nature of that
intellectual community, and especially Dan and Nancy.
When the time came for me to leave
Campbell Hall, I was hoping to attend Pacifica Graduate
Institute, a school which had acquired Joseph Campbell's
personal library after his death. Building on this
acquisition, Pacifica offers an M.A. and Ph.D. in mythological
studies, a program I was hoping to enter.
But it was expensive. So I
arranged a meeting with the then-director of the program, Dr.
Jonathan Young, to explore ways to finance my education. Dr.
Young had at that time been engaged to write a book based on
Campbell's taped lectures on Freud and Jung; he asked me to work
on this, and create an outline for the book.
Unfortunately, Dr. Young left Pacifica before I could make heads
or tails of the project, and it was never finished (and I never
went to Pacifica--but that's another story).
Nevertheless, for a period of months
there, I was immersed in the words and work of Joseph
Campbell. I was speaking in his cadences, thinking in his
vocabulary. And my own thinking was revolutionized.
Shortly thereafter, I moved in with actor Robert Urich and his
family, where I had more time to read, think, and write (like
Campbell in 1933). I read every book by Campbell that I could
get my hands on, and wrote voluminously. (Some of the
things I wrote at that time appear on this site.)
from Uncle Joe
And what did I learn from all this?
Primarily, I learned the importance of
Campbell's use of the word metaphor. All language
about "the Other," I came to see, is of necessity
metaphorical language. That is, "God,"
"heaven," and other such words, are referring to
something which cannot be expressed in words at all. The
more I pursued this idea, the more excited I became. I
came to see that words might hint at reality, but they can never
capture it. In the Eastern image, they are "fingers
pointing at the moon"...but never the moon itself.
Think about it. Christians put
great stock in "the name of Jesus." But this name is
no word he ever heard; it's a translation (of a
translation). The name is just a name, and by
extension the story is just a story. It is pointing
toward something "real," but cannot be the reality
Can you imagine the effect this
insight had on
Suddenly, my ideas about "God"
became something much...bigger. God was no longer a
tame, domesticated animal. Instead, he was ferocious,
unencompassable, ineffable. In Otto's words, a mysterium
tremendum et fascinans, sometimes translated "a dread
and yet alluring mystery." Wow.
Where in Campbell's work do we find this
idea? Everywhere. The very title of his
magnum opus, The Masks of God, speaks to this
metaphorical insight. All religions and mythologies are
merely masks for the reality of "God"-- as I have
often said, they are like the clothes and bandages on the
Invisible Man, giving shape to that which we cannot see.
Building on this foundational insight,
Campbell created a world of meaning. In time numerous essays
will explore these ideas more fully, but here is a hint:
- Comparative mythology: exploring the myths of various
cultures, finding "common ground"
- The Four Functions of Mythology: the Mystical (opening us
to wonder), Cosmological (placing us in the universe),
Social (organizing our lives in community), and Pedagogical
(teaching us how to live a human life)
- Metaphor: As discussed above, the idea that all words
about "the Other" are metaphorical, and less than
the "real thing"
- Becoming "transparent to transcendence":
allowing the energies of the universe to work through you
(largely by avoiding a concrete, scientific, historical
reading of myths)
- Archetypes: Drawing heavily on Jung, finding keys to
understanding widely varying myths through their resonance
in the human psyche
- The "Hero's Journey": A cycle of Call,
Departure, Attainment, return, and Transformation underlies
the world's hero stories
- "Follow Your Bliss": Campbell's best known (and, I suspect, least understood) dictum, crystallizing the wisdom he gained from a lifetime of studying myths
- Native American stories: Along with stories of other
primal cultures, these pre-literate stories held special
meaning for Campbell
- Arthurian romance: In contrast to the Native American
tales, these are some of the most sophisticated of stories
- Eastern thought (Hindu and Buddhist): Campbell "went
East," as I have, and found there some of the purest
soundings of the themes of world mythology
- Art and creativity: Throughout his work, Campbell often
returns to the nature of the creative process, saying that
in the past the shaman was the poet and artist of the tribe,
and that today the poet and artist is our shaman
For more on the life, work, and ideas of Joseph Campbell,
start here: You can explore the Tables of Contents of his many
books, as well as bibliographic information on books that he
Also, don't forget to
Journal for frequent comment on one aspect or another of
Uncle Joe's teaching.
(C) 2006 James Baquet