every woman adores a fascist -- sylvia plath

Sunday, January 08, 2012

A Quick Note on Joseph Campbell

My recent summaries of art theory led me to write one on the very famous Joseph Campbell. Personally, I'm a fan of his work. Not only did he find a way to describe the concept of the "monomyth" in a substantial way, he also had a huge impact on the story of "Star Wars". Both are very important in the history of storytelling, as well as important to me.

However, after seriously considering what he had to say about the monomyth (instead of considering what he did with my childhood dreams), I have to say that I was a bit taken back by the weakness in his arguments about the monomyth. That's not to say that his concept of the monomyth is weak, but rather his understanding of the causes of the monomyth in human history. You see, it's one thing to say that the monomyth exists (which seems to be true), it's quite another to say why it exists. Professor Campbell places the cause of the monomyth squarely on the human psyche: it's our unconscious minds that generates the Power of Myth. The problem with his argument is his account of why the modern reader is almost completely protected from the Power of Myth. Campbell says that the modern reader is protected from the Power of Myth since the reader interprets myth in scientific ways -- we either read myths as history, anthropology, or pre-science -- and that's no good..

Here's the problem.

Unconscious psychological powers aren't deterred by conscious efforts. For example. the Jungian Archetype of "The Wise Old Man" exists in our unconscious minds. When we consciously attempt to understand "wise old man", we do it through science and experience. Geritarics, health sciences, philosophy, Thanksgiving meals, and general interaction are a part of that attempt. In no way, according to Jung, do these experiences and conscious efforts change the impact of the Jungian Archetype "The Wise Old Man" in our psyche. Thus, Campbell's theory that the modern reader is protected by "modern" readings (historical, anthropological, pre-science) from the unconscious power of myth, is pretty much impossible. For Jung, these Archetypes are immutable. Their power is a constant, which contradicts Campbell's assertion.

With all of that said, this should not challenge the theory of the monomyth itself. Even though Campbell's causal theory of it is problematic, the concept of the monomyth is still good. It just needs a different explanation. Since the unconscious mind is a problematic explanation, perhaps we should turn to Aristotle's theory of knowledge and understanding as a different way of explaing the monomyth. Instead of looking at the cause "below the surface" (so to speak), perhaps we should look at it "above the surface" -- as a thing of the conscious, deliberative mind subject to spacetime, understanding, revelation, surprise, and emotion.

More later.