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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 our grand marble stairway. Unlike many scholars, he was convivial and at ease meeting strangers; moreover, having enjoyed a cocktail or two before dinner, he participated with relish in the give-and-take of vigorous discussion, which is (or is reputed to be) one of the most welcome features of the Century.

To the bewilderment of many members of the club, myself included, Campbell’s lifelong study of conflicting points of view in a variety of world cultures had not resulted in his accepting a variety of conflicting points of view in his own culture. Scholar that he was, surely he could be counted on to observe with a scholar’s detachment the desire for upward mobility of minority peoples in the United States? Surely he would be the first among us to understand and forgive if sometimes they displayed crude and even dangerous patterns of behavior? Well, nothing of the kind! So far was Campbell from applying the wisdom of the ages to the social, political, and sexual turbulence that he found himself increasingly surrounded by that he might have been a member of the Republican party somewhere well to the right of William F. Buckley. He embodied a paradox that I was never able to resolve in his lifetime and that I have been striving to resolve ever since: the savant as reactionary.

It was also a paradox that, although Campbell had devoted most of his teaching career to Sarah Lawrence—and a brilliant teacher he was—he never approved of the nature of the college, which was liberal if not radical in respect to politics and permissive in respect to personal conduct. He came from a middle-class Irish-Catholic background, which in his generation implied a certain Jansenist puritanism, and when he sought to describe the extent to which he believed himself to have escaped it—that is, to have successfully paganized himself—his words tended to grow at once lofty and mushy: he would suddenly be spouting language as coyly imprecise as that of any sentimental Victorian novelist. In respect to marriage, for example, Campbell would say that in undertaking it “we reconstruct”—Campbell’s words—“the image of the incarnate God.” Whatever that curious statement may mean, it certainly implies that marriage is an ambitious project and that we must therefore take care in choosing the correct marriage partner. How is this to be accomplished? According to Campbell, “Your heart tells you.”

Campbell’s bigotry had another distressing aspect, which was a seemingly ineradicable anti-Semitism. By the time I came to know him, he had learned to conceal its grosser manifestations, but there can be no doubt that it existed and that it tainted not only the man himself but the quality of his scholarship. For example, he despised Freud, and it appeared from our talks that he did so in large part because of the fact that Freud was Jewish. He approved highly of Jung and not least because Jung wasn’t Jewish. In an episode unknown to me until after Campbell’s death, as a young man he had provoked an indignant letter from no less a person than Thomas Mann, one of his two literary idols (the other was Joyce). In December 1941, three days after Pearl Harbor, Campbell gave a lecture at Sarah Lawrence on the subject “Permanent Human Values,” urging the assembled undergraduates not to be caught up in war hysteria and not to be tricked into missing the education to which they were entitled simply because “a Mr. Hitler collides with a Mr. Churchill.” Campbell argued that “creative writers, painters, sculptors, and musicians” ought to remain “devoted to the disciplines of pure art.” In time of war, the fortitude of the literary man and artist consists of remaining aloof from the political cockpit, giving no thought to the “undoing of an enemy.” At that very moment, Mann was devoting much of his energy to arousing the world to the menace of Hitler and the Nazis; for reasons difficult to imagine, Campbell sent a copy of his lecture to Thomas Mann, then living in Princeton, and received a civil but obviously angry letter in reply, which, translated from the German, reads in part:

As an American, you must be able to judge better than I, in a country which just now, slowly, slowly, under difficult and mighty obstacles, I hope not too late, has come to the true recognition of the political situation and its necessities, whether it is appropriate at this particular moment to recommend political indifference to American youth….

It is strange, you are a friend of my books, which therefore according to your opinion must have something to do with “Permanent Human Values.” Now these books are forbidden in Germany and in all countries that Germany rules, and whoever reads them or even should sell them, and whoever would so much as praise my name publicly would be put into a concentration camp and his teeth would be bashed in and his kidneys split in two. You teach that we must not get upset about that, we must rather take care of the maintenance of permanent human values. Once again, this is strange.

Campbell’s speech did him no lasting harm; it was not widely circulated and it seems likely that it was dismissed by those who read it as the special pleading of a passionate young humanist, and with the eventual British-American victory over the Nazis (for Mr. Hitler did indeed collide with Mr. Churchill) even Mann may have found it in his heart to forgive him. Nevertheless, Mann’s rebuke evidently galled Campbell. Many years later, he gave a talk in which he claimed that a monumental mistake had been made when Mann was invited to give the main address at the banquet held in 1936 to celebrate Freud’s eightieth birthday. According to Campbell, in the course of his eulogy of Freud, Mann had criticized Freud—whom Campbell mistakenly believed to have been in the audience and whom he described as “that poor little old man”—for not being aware that most of his discoveries had already been made by earlier German writers. (In fact, Mann’s admiration for Freud was unbounded and Freud was much gratified by the eulogy.) Campbell wound up his speech by noting that Mann “had lost altitude” as an artist by descending into political activity and raising his voice against the Nazis.

During Campbell’s long career at Sarah Lawrence, his was a name well known in academic circles. In the narrower circle of admirers of James Joyce, he was revered as the coauthor, with Henry Morton Robinson, of a learned and amusing book called A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake. It was from this book that, according to Campbell, Thornton Wilder had pinched much of the material for his play The Skin of Our Teeth. (Campbell may have had some justification in his accusation: Wilder was a notorious literary magpie.) It wasn’t, however, until the series of TV interviews he recorded with Bill Moyers was first put on the air almost a year after his death that the quiet eminence he had enjoyed in life suddenly leapt into posthumous fame.

These programs, six in number and lasting an hour apiece, were edited from some twenty-four hours of filmed conversation between Campbell and Moyers, carried on during late 1985 and early 1986. The series was entitled The Power of Myth, and a book was later published under the same title, drawing on both the broadcasts and on transcripts of the unedited conversations. The book became an instant best seller, as did a new edition of The Hero with a Thousand Faces. By then, the program had attracted an audience far larger than anyone had expected. It was a hit, and probably in reruns and on cassette it will go on being a hit for a long time to come.

Moreover, it was plain that the show’s popularity wasn’t simply a result of the awed praise of TV critics or even of the almost universal respect in which Moyers has come to be held; among the kind of people who watch so-called head shows on public television, Moyers has assumed a mantle not unlike that possessed on commercial television in a somewhat earlier period by Walter Cronkite, who was often described as “the most trusted man in America.” No doubt Moyers himself would be the first to affirm that it was Campbell’s personality, to say nothing of his message, that millions of people were reacting to and, it appeared, were heartily agreeing with.

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