book review: the power of myth


Recently finished The Power of Myth, which covers interviews with Joseph Campbell about myths, and was greatly disappointed. I'll briefly outline why in this review.

George Orwell, in Politics and the English Language, notes the following: 'Each of these passages has faults of its own, but, quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not […] The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.'

Those sentiments sum up this book quite well. Campbell has a tendency to use words/concepts---mythology, symbology, potentiality, reality, etc.---in ways that is often confusing or doesn't improve understanding of the topics discussed. For example, he tries to make a distinction between everlasting and eternal and how they are fundamentally different concepts in relation to Heaven and time, yet he seems to ignore the actually definitions of said words when giving his own interpretations of them. He continually drops phrases like 'transpersonal compulsion' without clear explanation and tends to contradict himself in fundamental ways (as Moyers points out when they are discussing love's relationship to pain, joy, and life). Given the breadth of the topics covered, this wouldn't be a deal breaker if it didn't happen so often.

Campbell and Moyers appear to have trouble maintaining a true conversation beyond demonstrating their own deep, if not insightful, knowledge of stories from various cultures. There are times when Moyer will ask a question and Campbell will respond with a long story without first setting-up why this story is relevant. Or Campbell will go on for a long time and at the end, Moyer will reference a different myth, seemingly out of the blue, that will steer the conversation in a completely different direction. Moyer's should be a more skeptical interviewer, as it would have forced Campbell to clarify concepts better rather than hide behind stories and hard to grasp phrases.

Honestly, I was expecting a book about how different mythologies influenced one another throughout the ages and their relation to how different cultures performed rituals and the effects on the historical paths those civilizations/cultures took. There are aspects of that within the book, but it is lost amongst Campbell's ramblings about the spiritual perils of modern life, his own revelations in younger life, side-tales about random myths that don't quite tie into the conversation at hand, and a continually revisiting ideas that he claims cannot be expressed via language or thought about (e.g. every time he discusses about transcendence).

I will be blunt: I didn't leave this book with a greater understanding of how to identify myths or a new set of tools to analyze them. However, I would still recommend the book only because it is a great example of how overanalyzing concepts with an in-built bias can lead you astray and dabbles upon some interesting ideas.

additional comments

Campbell is remarkably conservative in the classic sense (not, mind you, the modern use in America and its association with Republicans). His criticism of modern life and our inability to develop new myths is astonishing along with his seeming inability to grasp basic scientific knowledge. That he claims myths inform that we cannot change the natural world is a fundamental refutation to the 20th century and our stark ability to do just that. He notes that gangs in cities are an outlet for boys to obtain initiation rituals that modern society lacks, but ignores the more benign (in some places) rituals that occur in fraternities or other organizations.

He also continually seems to support sacrifice, harsh initiation rituals into adulthood, and claims multiple times that women didn't have such a bad time back in the day. He further seems to misunderstand how cruel life was before the industrial revolution, claiming that medieval lives were more full-filling and active than ours are today. This is romanticizes the past and given his apparent understanding of texts from the time, he should be aware it is an incorrect and unhelpful view especially when trying to analyze the past in relation to modern life.

Further, it is blatantly clear that Campbell has little grasp of how technology could lead to new forms of myths or how/whether new myths have arisen due to advances in technology. This is strange given his analysis of the change in rituals and objects of worship as the transition from hunting to agriculture occurred, e.g. from sacrificial or animal-based worship to the mother goddess. In addition to his seeming luddite tendencies are his astonishingly ill-informed discussions relating to scientific questions, such as the following:

"When you realize that if the temperature goes up fifty degrees and stays there, life will not exist on this earth, and that if it drops, let's say, another hundred degrees and stays there, life will not be on this earth; when you realize how very delicate this balance is, how the quantity of water is so important -- well, when you think of all the accidents of the environment that have fostered life, how can you think that the life we know would exist on any other particle of the universe, no matter how many of these satellites around stars there may be?"

And then there is self-help nonsense like: "I've never met an ordinary person.". That is false since the majority of people are ordinary by definition (that is, they are normal, which is the average). This imprecision when using basic language that makes it hard to interpret with any clarity what exactly Campbell is claiming.

As noted, Campbell has a tendency to repeat himself, hide behind vaguely defined words (realities, transcendence, etc.), and overanalyze simple stories. For example, take the following passage (notice the switching from 'the god' to 'God'):

MOYERS: But weren't the people who told these stories, who believed them and acted on them, asking simpler questions? Weren't they asking, for example, who made the world? How was the world made? Why was the world made? Aren't these the questions that these creation stories are trying to address?
CAMPBELL: No. It's through that answer that they see that the creator is present in the whole world. You see what I mean? This story from the Upanishads that we have just read -- "I see that I am this creation," says the god. When you see that God is the creation, and that you are a creature, you realize that God is within you, and in the man or woman with whom you are talking, as well.

When Campbell starts discussing how the geography and manner of obtaining food affects a civilization's mythology, it gets interesting. The fact that most farming societies develop myths around resurrection and its relation to re-planting of seeds isn't novel, but he analyzes it thoroughly. If the rest of the book was focused like those sections, 4 stars. Instead he produces phrases like 'is or is not, but is everything' that add nothing or doesn't directly answer questions asked, as in the following:

MOYERS: What impact has this father quest had on us down through the centuries?
CAMPBELL: It's a major theme in myth. There's a little motif that occurs in many narratives related to a hero's life, where the boy says, "Mother, who is my father?" She will say, "Well, your father is in such and such a place," and then he goes on the father quest.

Okay…we already know that, but the question is how has that myth affected us, e.g. cultures/civilizations /etc.? Has it influence politics or specific aspects of art? How has it informed rituals?

Campbell claims multiple times that modern America has no myth, no unifying identity. Yet, he never even mentions the frontier myth, something that is essential to the American ethos and image. Perhaps because it doesn't encompass a single story but is stretched out over a century, Campbell can't pinpoint a unique story to tell or specific spiritual teaching to draw from it. Or more like, it is too literal and well-known myth, one that prevents his delving into the metaphysical realm and discussions on transcendence or other undefinable concepts (in his own words).

In the end, while the book content-wise was a disappointment and while I have given it a low rating, it is perhaps a worthy read as a cautionary tale about how simple truths---13 colonies may be just as significant in the use of 13 in American iconography as the numbers relation to Masonic ideas---can sometimes be overanalyzed or construed to fit ones pre-defined view on how to interpret myths.

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