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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Creative Mythology

Warm, gray, damp. Robin phoned Kimmie this morning to suggest that we join her and Trevor for breakfast at the Corner Cafe. We did. It's a little diner down on Pemberton Ave., run by a Korean family. The place looks much as it must have circa 1960: checkered linoleum-tile floor, fixed upholstered barstools, arborite-topped tables. The two daughters, petite and always smiling, are scientists. One of them has just shipped off to MIT to study engineering or physics. The other one (I think she's a biochemist) is still at home, waiting tables on the weekend. The other Saturday waitress is a cute little Serbian girl: also tiny, but blond, with deepset dark-brown eyes, a husky voice, and small teeth with little spaces between them. I had my usual Clubhouse Breakfast: two pancakes, scrambled eggs, three strips of bacon. Then I helped Kimmie shop for dress patterns at Wal-Mart.

I was introduced to Joseph Campbell by my English 100 prof Lee Whitehead in 1979. I'd never heard of him, but Dr. Whitehead was passionate, in his dry-voiced way, in his advocacy of this mythologist. He urged us to attend a lecture that Campbell was giving right there at UBC that term. I think the lecture was about Dracula or Frankenstein--I'm not sure, I didn't go.

But I respected Dr. Whitehead enough to pick up one of Campbell's books: Creative Mythology, the last volume in his Masks of God series. I still have that copy; I bought it in April 1980, just before I left home to live with my two friends Brad and Keith in the upstairs of a stuccoed shoebox at 12th and Clark. In a pencil-crayon drawing I made of our living-room there, titled "Keeth's Koffee Table", the book rests on the table alongside a poster and a stack of square coasters (Keith was proud of his nice mahogany coffeetable). I started with Creative Mythology, lacking the patience to read the three preceding volumes first, wanting to skip right to the conclusions and our current-day situation. "Just give me the bottom line, Joe."

I found it absorbing, exciting. I was looking for symbolic tidbits I could use in my own writing, but I knew I was being flooded over with a tremendous depth of knowledge and insight. I read the other three volumes in due course, and have reread them all at least once since then--Creative Mythology probably four complete times, and I have scanned through its highlighted parts many more. As with all excellent works, each time it is a new experience, richer, deeper. For this project I have typed it out as a Word document in my Research folder.

I've got the fat Penguin edition in front of me now. I've taped up the spine to hold it together. I have another, newer copy in my bookshelf, but this is the one I've read all those times; this is the one with the highlighting. It still has the little purple rosette stamped on its opening page by the salesperson at Banyen Books to show that it had been bought there. (That little rosette even shows up in my drawing from 1980.)

I suppose this book is the closest thing I have to a bible. I was a practicing Buddhist for 16 years and held a number of dharma texts sacred, but this one talks to my heart. I am spontaneously drawn to it, and to Campbell's mind and teachings. He's famous and widely read, but even so, I feel Campbell is underrated in today's world.

In this book he develops the theme that the modern Western world is at a truly new point in the evolution of human mythology (his understanding of the term mythology is much deeper and vaster than our conventional idea of it; my own thumbnail definition of mythology, based on his teachings, is "software for living"). Modern man (including modern woman of course) has emancipated himself from the ancient mythologies of the hunt and of agriculture, and in the West is staring into the spiritual problem of the mystery of his own individuality. Gradually human beings have emerged from their collectives to become individuals: autonomous beings responsible for our own destinies, our own salvation. The cultural expressions of this autonomy include objective science, industrialization, and the concept of human rights. Each person is a world; each person is precious in this conception of humanity.

Campbell develops the idea that the core myth of this era of modern Western individuality is that of the Holy Grail, most authoritatively depicted in the poem Parzifal by Wolfram von Eschenbach just after AD 1200. According to Campbell, for people with integrity of heart and mind, the authority of the Christian church came to an end at about that time. One result was the flowering of the Grail myth: a new symbol of supreme spiritual value, the innate capacity for spiritual realization within a true heart, listening to its own inner voice, and not the dictates of external authority, such as the church. The Grail represents the possibility of supreme realization for one who quests on his or her own, not following in the steps of others. It is the mythology of the modern "alienated" Western individual.

I certainly didn't understand much of this when I first read the book in 1980. But I felt the excitement of connection with real ideas--living ideas. I wanted more. Campbell, and especially Creative Mythology, became one of the tools in my kit, a kind of glowing radioactive stone of inspiration that I could take out and draw on. I've never "outgrown" it; I don't expect to. I keep growing into it. Using his text as a guide, I want to put my own hands on the live embers of our current world mythology, to move them, build with them. This inexhaustible treasure can be mined and brought to people. That is my mission.

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