Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2007

Joseph Campbell: Man and Myth

By David Luhrssen
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Joseph Campbell became the foremost popularizer of comparative mythology and religion in the second half of the 20th century. Unlike his narrow track academic colleagues, working only for merit pay increases, Campbell felt he was on to something important and tirelessly presented his idea to the general educated public. He was the Noam Chomsky of spirituality.


Shortly before his death in 1987, Campbell gave a series of lectures originally broadcast on PBS and collected on a two-DVD set, “Joseph Campbell: Mythos 1.” Susan Sarandon hosted the series, but the Sarah Lawrence professor was the star of the show. Campbell properly defined mythology as stories that convey truths about the world. As he explained to a student audience, there are elemental ideas—Jungian archetypes—that reappear in different guises from one time and place to another. These archetypes, profoundly rooted in the human unconscious, wear the masks fashioned by various cultures and can also be subject to individual interpretation.

The presentation is static and strictly C-Span, mostly mid-range shots of Campbell on the podium with an occasional cutaway to a visual aid. The cinematography is of no interest but Campbell’s wisdom and insights remain timeless. Anyone wishing to fully investigate his ideas should look for his four-volume magnum opus, The Masks of God. If that seems too daunting, “Mythos 1” is at least a good starting point.

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