The Sinister Redhead

The Flight of the Wild Gander

by Joseph Campbell
Viking, 248 pp., $7.50

Freud and Jung so upgraded mythology that it is now widely regarded as a treasure-house of esoteric revelation, from which the initiated can extract profound truths about human behavior.

With his four-volume study, The Masks of God, and with The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell has already established himself as a master of mythological exegesis. Moreover, he has long been associated with the “Eranos” symposia at Ascona, where certain scholars annually forgather to discuss topics generally related to the work of C. G. Jung: Campbell himself is the editor of the English editions of the “Eranos Yearbooks.” This Eranos project has been much concerned with Jung’s theory of the existence of certain archetypal ideas, deep-rooted in the human mind, which find expression in myth.

The purpose that underlies the work of Campbell, and of other scholars associated with him, is legitimate and can be readily appreciated. The comparative study of religion has amassed a vast quantity of mythological data which demands interpretation. The material is drawn from all over the world and back into the remote past—in fact, some prehistorians now find mythologies presented in paleolithic cave art. In this material, bizarre and often repulsive as much of it is, certain common motifs and patterns can be discerned, suggesting that myth reflects abiding human aspirations and needs. Hence the urge to seek in comparative mythology for insights into the lower reaches of the human psyche—in fact, to find those Jungian archetypes that, allegedly, explain so much that is enigmatic or irrational in man.

In Campbell’s view the function of mythology can be understood only when “one abandons the historical method of tracing secondary origins and adopts the biological view (characteristic of the medical art of psychoanalysis), which considers the primary organism itself, this universal carrier and fashioner of history, the human body.” However, this “biological view” is to be acquired by means that do not seem so scientific as the term “biological” suggests. Campbell quotes Freud and Jung as endorsing his assumption that “dream and vision have been, everywhere and forever, the chief creative and shaping powers of myth,” but, aside from such quotations, he has little to say about the biological basis of myth. Nevertheless, this assumption explains the curious title of his new book: The Flight of the Wild Gander refers to shamanistic trance. By such means, together with yoga and Zen praxis, Campbell believes that an experience of disengagement “from cosmic references” and a “sense of existence” may be achieved—“a moment of unevaluated, unimpeded, lyric life—antecedent to both thought and feeling.” Such experience for Campbell is the summum bonum, and to its description and achievement his studies are apparently consecrated.

In this book, as in his other works, Campbell displays immense learning, drawing evidence to support his case from virtually every branch of human knowledge. However, when one considers more closely many of his tacit assumptions and illustrations, one begins to doubt the rigor of his methodology and the …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.