The Faces of Joseph Campbell

Thanks to television, people comparatively obscure during their lifetimes enjoy the possibility of becoming celebrated after they are dead. Indeed, they may do better than that—they may achieve what amounts to a substantial measure of immortality, which is to say that as long as TV tapes of them exist and as long as an audience can be found of a size sufficient to make it worthwhile to broadcast the tapes, they can go on occupying a prominent place in the world for many decades and perhaps even—who knows?—for centuries.

Of course I am thinking of a particular case: that of my friend Joseph Campbell, who taught at Sarah Lawrence College for almost forty years, his subject being the role of myth in human history. He wrote a number of books on this and related topics, the best known of them in his lifetime being The Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Masks of God. He retired from Sarah Lawrence in 1972 and was at work on still another book when, in 1987, at the age of eighty-two, he died after what his obituary in The New York Times described simply as “a brief illness.” That brevity was, so his friends thought, characteristic of him: he died within a few months, and in doing so he displayed what many of his friends took to be a characteristic—and enviable—alacrity.

I call Campbell’s alacrity enviable because, in our present state of medical ignorance, the disease that was killing him wasn’t to be outwitted except in a negative sense by the degree to which its duration could be reduced: Why dawdle in the presence of the inevitable? At the same time, however, for Campbell to have consented to be sick at all seemed an impermissible aberration. Ordinarily, it isn’t a reason for astonishment when an old man is called upon to die, but Campbell had seemed to us never to grow old. If by the calendar he had reached his eighties, in person he was a good twenty years younger than that, or so any stranger would have assumed on meeting him. He was slender and quick-moving and because of his erect carriage gave the impression of being taller than he was. He had thick dark wavy hair, bright blue eyes, unwrinkled skin, and a pink complexion. He laughed readily, boyishly, and his laughter remained especially attractive in old age because, as far as one could tell, his teeth were his own, neither false nor capped. He was, in short, an invincibly youthful figure, so uncannily unaltered by time that I used to accuse him, to his delight, of practicing some hitherto unknown form of satanism.

We would encounter each other, Campbell and I, at monthly meetings of the Century Club, in New York City. Handsome in black tie, he would be standing near one or another of the bars that were set up on such occasions in the art gallery off the landing of …

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Letters

Joseph Campbell: An Exchange November 9, 1989