Education, Responsibility, and Joseph Campbell

Education, flowing from the hearts and minds of gentle, aware teachers, has provided me with an experience of consciousness and culture for which I am responsible:

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

These are Joseph Campbell’s words to Bill Moyers in his interviews titled, “The Power of Myth”. Reading these interviews is building on my conviction that I am responsible for my home and my people and all the investments of multi-formed love they have bestowed upon my life. Campbell tells Moyers that, “One of our problems today is that we are not well acquainted with the literature of the spirit.”

In the US almost everyone is acquainted with Jesus and the Bible, but few have heard the words of Plato, Confucius, the Buddha, Goethe and even fewer understand the truth Campbell spent his life communicating concerning the power of myth. Myth voices its continual presence in virtually every dimension of life; it is there hidden beneath the veneer of even the most mundane matters of experience. Campbell said that the ‘guiding idea’ of his work was to find “the commonality of themes in world myths, pointing to a constant requirement in the human psyche for a centering in terms of deep principles.” I’ll just plagiarize Bill Moyer’s for a second because its so good:

The images of God are many, he said, calling them ‘the masks of eternity’ that both cover and reveal ‘the Face of Glory.’ He wanted to know what it means that God assumes such different masks in different cultures, yet how it is that comparable stories can be found in these divergent traditions–stories of creation, of virgin births, incarnations, death and resurrection, second comings, and judgment days. He liked the insight of the Hindu scripture: ‘Truth is one; the sages call it by many names.’

One the guiding sources of inspiration flowing into my life is from AA. A distilled form of the deep meaning behind so many religious traditions, it is culturally relevant, adequate, and resonant; it has momentum – it moves people toward the realm of the spirit despite religious preference or prejudice; it offers a broad rite of passage and it is a channel for the mythological experience in an age bereft of spiritual direction. AA has been the place I have found my story or passage into adulthood. My lingering prayer is that my education and the sense of responsibility I carry will lead me into a greater expression of service. The distance between my potential and my actuality continues to shrink and I trust that movement will continue as I show up for life… after all Campbell says: “Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of human life.”

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Joseph Campbell, Michel Foucault and the Symbolic Life

Speaking about the symbolism behind John F. Kennedy’s funeral after his assassination, Bill Moyers relates Campbell’s understanding that the funeral had been, “an illustration of the high service of ritual to a society…(that)…this was a ritualized occasion of the greatest social necessity.” “The public murder of a president, ‘represented our whole society, the living social organism of which ourselves were the members, taken away at a moment of exuberant life, required a compensatory rite to reestablish the sense of solidarity. Here was an enormous nation, made those four days into a unanimous community, all of us participating in the same way, simultaneously, in a single symbolic event.’ He said it was ‘the first and only thing of its kind in peacetime that has ever given me the sense of being a member of this whole national community, engaged as a unit in the observance of a deeply significant rite.'”

When I read this section of the introduction to The Power of Myth, I immediately recognized the insight that Foucault so often explained about the political effects of disciplinary power. Power produces knowledge Foucault insists; it forces us to emit signs, celebrations, procedures, ritual. It is clear that in the case of Kennedy’s funeral, read as a symbolic event as Campbell suggests, there was a power at work upon the body. Foucault writes in Discipline and Punish (138), that, “The human body was entering a machinery of power that explores it, breaks it down and rearranges it.” The event was a rupture in the course of vibrant life, against the very fabric of a thriving U.S. presidency. It was so traumatic that it literally broke the spirit of congeniality (or ambivalence) and reordered the nation into a collective act of mourning and sympathy. Foucault writes, “A ‘political anatomy’ which was also a ‘mechanics of power’ was being born…”
The power/knowledge configurations that exercise discipline over bodies actually produced a national collective compensation – a ritual of mourning. The materialization of symbolic meaning is the very point of mourning. Without a ‘political anatomy’ that accounts for processes of mourning the realms of symbolic power go unacknowledged throwing our interpretive frameworks farther from the ‘light of integral consciousness.’ The remnants of mythological experience flows through the body; it is a mechanism of political constitution, of the very ruff, messy world we call political.

Though the discourses of Foucault and Campbell might seem to be at odds – one at the intersections of depth psychology and religious studies and the other an archeologist of structuralism and history – their insights move me closer to the conclusion that only through intensified acts of collective experience (including and especially mourning), embolden through a political anatomy, grounded on the wonder of mythological truth, can bring to the surface the potential of a unified global citizenry.

Thank God for the internet. Now all I have to do is wait.