Myths of Light by Joseph Campbell

May I begin by saying how DENSE Campbell is?  Because he is, horrifically so.

Myths of Light: Eastern Metaphors of the Eternal caught my eye for a couple reasons.   1) My mythology “section” in my library, I am ashamed to admit, is Greco-Roman centric to the point that it is Greco-Roman almost in its entirety, with an honorable mention for the slowly blossoming Celtic and Norse sub-sections.  There is almost nothing that is Eastern in it, not for lack of interest, but lack of necessity.  For the last several years I have been studying in a Classics and Western-based curriculum.  Here was a chance, in a small book of lectures from an expert in the field, to broaden my horizons.  2) I love light metaphors.  Kill two birds with one stone.   The inside of the jacket is far too long to transcribe, as well as being unnecessarily wordy (a problem Campbell persists in throughout the manuscript), but the gist of the book comes in the last paragraph: In Myths of Light, Campbell explores the core philosophies and mythologies of the East, comparing them through vivid examples and stories to each other and to the West. A worthy companion to [another book about the underlying Judeo-Christian mythologies] and to Campbell’s Asian Journals, this volume conveys complex insights through warm, accessible storytelling, revealing the intricacies and secrets of Campbell’s subject with his typical enthusiasm.

After typing that, I feel as if I should have put a caveat lector at the beginning of this post, but I’ll insert it now:  I will be using the words myth, tradition, and religion interchangeably (as the book itself does). I do not do this because I do not respect religion; I respect it enormously.  I do it because I am trained to think as a mythologist.  Myths are, or have been at one time, sacred narratives–mankind’s explanations of the world–simple as that.  That does  not mean they are not true, partially or completely.  It just means that myths are myths.  It is only recently that “myth” has come to mean “falsehood” and I dislike that usage greatly.  So please, understand that I respect, and hold my own religious belief, but still call it myth.  In fact, as an interesting side note, the Greek word mythos meant “word” (as in, “In the beginning there was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” kind of word) until Aristotle hijacked it.  Then it took on a meaning more similar to “story” or “plot.”  But I digress.  Summation: tradition=myth=religion=not a bad thing!

Moving on.

Two weeks ago my sister and I attended a musical.  We had a fabulous time.  Later, on the drive home, we were discussing the musical and how heart-wrenching it was.  We came to the conclusion that we had not had an enjoyable experience, but we had had a good one.  This, I think, perfectly describes how I feel about reading Campbell.

Not long after getting into the book, I found myself wondering just where Campbell stood religiously, not because it mattered, but because he made it painfully clear he did not ascribe to the Christian tradition.  It was also clear he revered Eastern traditions, but that seemed to be it.  I found it odd that he was so clear in his derision for the Christian myth, but so very vague about what (non)belief system he ascribed to.  But, since it did not matter, I purposely chose not to look it up.  Upon finishing, I concluded that Campbell was either an atheist or a follower of an Eastern religion (though I could never choose which one, he venerates all of them).  I still have not looked in the attempt to keep the experience innocent of the matter.

Now, why does this matter to me when I have already said it does not matter to the book’s content?  Because I found that I understood certain passages more clearly if I assumed he was taking the atheist’s point of view and yet understood others better if I felt he was taking the religious point of view.  It was strange, though somewhat enlightening.  This book is actually a collection of lectures conflated into an introduction, three chapters, and an “envoy.”  I think perhaps some of the reason I found certain sections to be better if I assumed the lecturer was one who had a concept of a world with no god or a world with a god is because of this.  After reading this book, I fully trust Campbell to be enough of a Devil’s Advocate to have argued both sides during his long career.

Now, to the book’s content itself.  I do not agree with many of Campbell’s assertions about Occidental (aka Western and Near Eastern) religion.  I think his attitude towards it is lamentable and unenlightened.  But, as I ascribe to an Occidental religion, I would expect that this would be the case.  That being said, I get back to the first point I made with the story about the musical: it was not an enjoyable experience, but it was a good one.  It amazes me, that though Campbell and I disagree about much, he was still able to teach me quite a bit of factual knowledge and lead me places where I could make my own conclusions.  He is the consummate teacher.  In a classic move, he would purposely leave a conversation unfinished, forcing the reader to put down the book and think.  It was beautiful.

In this book, Campbell consciously used more sources in his psychological proofs than he usually does.  Normally, he’s very Freudian.  I recognize Campbell’s genius and contribution to the field of mythological research, but Freudian psychology is very hard for me to swallow.  I prefer Jungian.  In this series of lectures, he used Freud, Jung, and Adler to great effect.  It was a nice change and made for a much more pleasant reading experience.  Using Freud for comparison is just the way I like him.  Though I do wish he had used Lacan.  No one uses Lacan enough (probably because he was insane, but oh was he ever good).

I would like to address each “chapter.”  They were each a lecture on a specific part of Eastern mythology, though each could have easily been its own novella.  There was much repeated information, which is also the mark of a good teacher (though, by the end, I was screaming in my head,”I’VE HEARD THIS ALREADY, I JUST WANT IT TO BE OVER!!!!” but that was more an impatience thing than a bad writing thing).

First, the Introduction and Envoy.  These I will address together.  They are wonderful.  Read them, even if you read nothing else in the entire book.  They are small glimpses of a better way to look at oneself, as well as an insight into Campbell himself.  He loved myth, everything about it.  He did not always love the way mankind took myth and twisted it to his use, but myth itself?  This was Campbell’s bliss.  As the introduction said, “with his typical enthusiasm.”  There is no better description for Campbell’s approach to these short sections.  These sections are even accessible, as the jacket flap claims, which is NOT the case elsewhere.  Campbell does not do accessible.

Second, I wish to cover the second chapter, “The Jiva’s Journey.”   This is by far the most laborious and ridiculous chapter of the whole book.  All the points are interesting and valid, but as he tries to make each fit into the original thesis, the reader is lost.  It is also sixty-seven pages long.  The sub-sections are not distinct enough to provide good stopping points.  I had to remind myself over and over again what the main point of the chapter was.  If you do not read anything in this book, do not read this chapter.  Ugh.  This is Campbell at his most didactic and pedantic.  And I can put up with quite a bit of that schlep.

Next, the third chapter, “Vessels to the Farther Shore.”  This chapter is a summary Jainism, Hinduism, and Buddhism.  It’s very nice.  The content is smart without being too difficult, it’s a good overview and makes you think and consider without indoctrinating you.  I find I like Campbell’s teaching style more than I like his conclusions most of the time.  In this chapter, I like both.

The last one is the first chapter, “The Birth of Brahman.”  This chapter was a revelation.  It broke my brain.  It made me take the time to put my brain back together, just to get it broken again.  This had very little to do with what Campbell said, but what he started to say and had me finish saying.  I thought deeper about my perspectives because of this chapter than any other in this book.  I also disagreed with him more in this chapter than any other in this book.  If you are going to read any of the actual lectures, this is the one.  I feel like this is the best example of his teaching.  His metaphors are interesting, but require you to process as well.  And, of course, this teacher really doesn’t mind if you disagree, so feel free to! 😀

I liked the book.  It was a good read.  There is no reason why I would not read his other books, though certainly I would be careful with his Judeo-Christian material given how acerbic he was in the few moments here.  I recommend it with reservations.  Religious material is difficult, and mythology is religion as much as religion is mythology.  The beautiful partnership makes for a good read, but you have to be sure of which side of the line you stand on before you read something by someone who crosses it regularly.


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