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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, May 26, 2005

myth and life

Sunny, warm--like high summer, but with the fresh translucent greens of spring still.

Morning notes: True Believer and Alexander the Great by Robin Lane Fox.

When I wrote about Joseph Campbell back on 14 May, I thought that Creative Mythology was the first of his books that I bought and read, but it wasn't. My copy of The Hero with a Thousand Faces I got in December 1979--right around the time when Dr. Whitehead was recommending him. This volume I have also read several times, highlighted, and keyed in compressed form into a Word document. My edition is the black-covered Princeton Bollingen trade paperback, heavy, with nice paper. The spine has come unglued and the pages are starting to break away. Now at least once a year I read it again--the highlighted portions, so I can read the whole book in one or two sittings.

In my opinion, it's one of the most important books of the 20th century. A few years ago I noted how 3 such important books appeared almost simultaneously in the late 1940s: The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), The White Goddess by Robert Graves (1948), and Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry (1947). These three geniuses were probably not even aware of each other, but they were working with similar themes in their different ways.

The basic message underlying each is that the fiery cauldron of myth is as hot today, this second, as it ever was, and that what we are pleased to call "myth" is actually the life-force that animates our existence each day and each moment. Graves was showing how all European poetry had as its basic theme a single subject: the eternal story of the Great Goddess and her consort/child the mortal but resurrected king, the god who appears only in a twinhood of alternating roles. The new young lover kills the old and takes his place by the side of the Queen of Heaven, to be killed in his turn by his own successor. It's the story of the Golden Bough, examined at length by J. G. Frazer.

Under the Volcano tells this story in modern-day Mexico on the eve of World War 2. Geoff Firmin, His Majesty's (alcoholic) consul in Cuernavaca, lives through his last day on earth trying to reunite with his estranged wife while his half-brother Hugh replaces him in her affections, all in the shadow of the great smoking volcano Popocatepetl. Lowry gives the story urgency, pathos, and great symbolic depth, suggesting that the political and military paroxysms of the 20th century are themselves the manifestation of this same volcanic mythic force. Brother kills brother to take possession of a stretch of fiery Mother Earth.

Campbell's book takes a step further back to look at the phenomenon of myth as such, rather than any one myth. Here is an extract from the opening of Hero:

Throughout the inhabited world, in all times and under every circumstance, the myths of man have flourished; and they have been the living inspiration of whatever else may have appeared out of the activities of the human body and mind.... Myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation. Religions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth.

In one sense, he's simply providing a definition of myth--his own. But in reality he is doing much more: he's trying to reintroduce us to the wonder of our own existence, and make us curious about it again in a new way. What could this thing myth possibly be, such that even what we term God is simply a manifestation of it? The book provides a kind of X-ray of the structure of all myths, all stories.

Campbell spent his career investigating and answering that question. This book, Hero, published when he was only 44, was the first sign-marker on the route of his quest. I am so glad that I have been allowed to follow.

I don't specifically remember the first time I read it. At that time I revered Carl Jung, and had read a few of his books. This no doubt struck me as being in a similar vein, and speaking with a similar authority. Incredibly, in this one book he is able to show how the myths of the world, of history, reveal the entire spiritual journey of each of us, as far as it can be revealed. The achievement is staggering, and, as I've said before, underrated.

Here's an extract from a section called "The Ultimate Boon", which was to have importance for me years later:

The prodigious gulf between those childishly blissful multitudes who fill the world with piety and the truly free breaks open at the line where the symbols give way and are transcended.... Here is the line beyond which thinking does not go, beyond which all feeling is truly dead: like the last stop on a mountain railroad from which climbers step away, and to which they return, there to converse with those who love mountain air but cannot risk the heights.

Whatever my first impression of Hero, it made me hungry for more of Campbell, so 4 months later I bought myself Creative Mythology and continued on my own personal quest. It's still on, but has been a very fruitful and fulfilling one so far.



  • Hello...I recently discovered your blog and like it very much; have found it thoughtful reading. I have treasured editions of "The White Goddess" and "Hero With A Thousand Faces"--both read multiple times, and also Frazer's "The Golden Bough." Those 3 books, I think, are the strongest influence on my writing and my thought. Best of success with your current WIP.

    By Blogger Debra Young, at May 27, 2005 9:44 AM  

  • Thanks Debra. As far as I know, you're the first person to read my blog other than the family and friends I've sent it to.

    Now I'm sampling yours, and wish you best of luck of course.

    By Blogger paulv, at May 27, 2005 4:17 PM  

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