Myth: The Grammar of Creativity
Each month, we explore a theme through weekly MythBlasts, curated works, quotations, etc. This month's theme is Metamorphosis.
For the rest of the year, we at JCF are highlighting the final volume of Joseph Campbell’s remarkable Masks of God series, The Masks of God, Volume 4: Creative Mythology. Many of my friends and acquaintances, particularly those who are writers and artists, say that this is their favorite Joseph Campbell work.
In traditional mythology, Campbell says, individuals are supposed to experience
certain insights, sentiments, and commitments. In what I am calling “creative” mythology, on the other hand, this order is reversed: the individual has had an experience of his own—of order, horror, beauty, or even mere exhilaration—which he seeks to communicate through signs; and if his realization has been of a certain depth and import, his communication will have the value and force of living myth.[…] Mythological symbols touch and exhilarate centers of life beyond the reach of vocabularies of reason and coercion.
(Creative Mythology, 12)
I prefer to understand myth more as a mode of thought or a condition of imagining rather than an explicit narrative containing a traditional, historical, or even metaphysical, body of knowledge. As Professor Campbell suggests in the quote above, myth is something more than a vocabulary, and from the perspective of myth as a mode of thought, I understand myth to be something like the grammar of creativity, or the grammar of imagination (as I recall, Hegel mentioned something similar, like grammar being the work of thought). Grammar is not merely about proper tense and usage; grammar includes analyses of narrative structures, letting one be aware of the constraints or limitations of various communications, conventions, and even art forms. The English word, grammar, is related to the Greek phrase, grammatikḕ téchnē, which means the “art of letters,” and David Crystal believes that “grammar is the structural foundation of our ability to express ourselves.” Expressing our own experiences—especially the puzzling, ineffable, sublime experiences—are, as Campbell notes, communications that have the value and force of living myth.
Continue Reading the Mythblast
Myth was taken up (or rediscovered) during the Enlightenment because as a mode of thinking, it was believed to be a key to comprehending history, philosophy, religion, art, linguistics, and creativity itself. Considering myth a master discipline that stimulated a mode of thinking freed it from the vice-like grip of divine revelation and institutional oversight and returned ownership of myth to individual human beings. It freed the mythic imagination to be employed in a wide-ranging, non-linear, exploratory search for the significance of a human life lived in a fundamentally enigmatic world. Thinking mythically frees myth from the world of supernatural intervention and rightfully reclaims for human beings an experience of the sublime directly linked to human passions, changes of fortune, joys and depressions, pathos and elation.
Myth is also a mode of thinking that reliably rewards a reader’s attention with an experience of delight, even though the myth itself may address horrific themes or events. John Dryden specifically—and all manner of poets, writers, painters, and classically educated people—have noted this function at work in the mythopoetic genre. The poet is, as the word poesis suggests, a maker and a creator, one who aims at making something beautiful, something that stirs us, not by representing things exactly as they are but by heightening their intensity and deepening their depths, qualities which Dryden termed “lively” and “just.” (Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1668)) Mythopoesis is a uniquely human endeavor and delighting in it allows one to, if not exactly remake the world, at least remake our own reality here and now. For there is no fear in delight, no pain, no thought; delight is pure experience, and is in itself, transcendent.
Poesis and drama also instruct, writes Dryden, but the function of instruction is secondary in his mind; in his thinking, primacy of place is given to the function of delight. Delight is created by the contemplation of beauty, and the job of the creative person is to create a grammar that highlights beauty and contributes to the pleasures of the soul. The condition of delight taken in every aspect of life—even in its “order, horror, beauty, or even mere exhilaration” as Campbell noted above—allows one to accept one’s all-too-human existence without the slavish and frequently unbecoming need for transcendence which, when it is the only goal of a spiritual practice, is simply a euphemism for escaping the human condition.
By following your bliss, Campbell doesn’t mean escaping life or one’s corporeality. Rather, I understand him to mean that bliss is found in the realization that life is often accompanied by inescapable constraints of one kind or another, but in spite of that, we need not respond to any controlling authority other than a deeply felt, inner sense of a central organizing principle—“the dynamism of being,” as Campbell has called it—an inner depth that continually unfolds in proportion to how intensely we approach our own self-becoming. Jung called it individuation, Nietzsche called it Amor Fati, and Keats put it this way:
…Though no great minist’ring reason sorts
Out the dark mysteries of human souls
To clear conceiving: yet there ever rolls
A vast idea before me, and I glean
Therefrom my liberty…
Much like language itself, the language and grammar of myth is capable of absorbing and disturbing us in secret ways and often, to our own excitement or frustration and bewilderment, exposes us to a vast idea. It’s true, isn’t it, that the mythic narratives themselves are not as important as the dialogues we have about myth and meaning? Isn’t that the great inheritance, the great gift of myth: that they immerse us in the existentially puzzling phenomena we’d rather not have to give too much thought to? Phenomena like the mystery of existence, the constant struggle between free will and fate, and all the conditions of life that remain stubbornly resistant to the intellect and reason.
Myths expose one to the forces and effects of a complex, often overwhelming world upon a limited human being, but they also suggest to us that if we can only begin to think and imagine more mythically one may not only feel, but actually be, less constrained by the complexities and limitations of human life; that is where liberty truly abides. Imagined and thought of this way, myth offers a closer and truer relationship with life. It certainly doesn’t remove or solve the problems of living, but it can illuminate the subject and that, if nothing else, is something significant and well worth having.
Thanks for reading,
Bradley Olson, Ph.D.
Bradley Olson, Ph.D., is the editor of the Joseph Campbell Foundation’s MythBlast series. Dr. Olson is a Depth Psychologist in private practice in Flagstaff, Arizona; his work with clients is heavily influenced by his interest in Jungian Analytical Psychology, literature, and Mythological Studies.
Mythological symbols touch and exhilarate centers of life beyond the reach of vocabularies of reason and coercion.
The Masks of God 4: Creative Mythology
Creative Mythology is the fourth and final volume of Joseph Campbell’s major work of comparative mythology, The Masks of God. In this installment, the pre-eminent mythologist looks at the European mythology of individualism as it took flower in medieval Europe and spread, through the Renaissance, to influence modernist thought, art, and literature.
“The ancient Greeks called the art of reworking established myths ‘mythopoesis.’ Telling an old story in a new voice and from a fresh perspective makes room for new questions and reveals new meanings. It’s an essential form of myth-making. In Ariadne, Jennifer Saint reimagines the classic Greek story of Theseus and the Minotaur from the perspective of Ariadne and her sister, Phaedra. These two women tell a compelling story about monsters, heroes, and the mysterious god Dionysus, and the role they played in this famous story. Ariadne is a wonderful poesis of Greek mythology and a meditation on sisterhood, heroism, fate, and free will today.”
Catherine Svehla, PhD
Editorial Advisory Group
Joseph Campbell Foundation
Creative Mythology (Audio: Lecture II.2.5)
Our gift to you this month is audio lecture. Access this download for free until the end of the month.
Joseph Campbell was often asked how a new mythology was going to develop. His answer was that it would have to come from poets, artists, and filmmakers. In this talk, Campbell explores what he called creative mythology — the way in which artists can and do give a sense of the transcendent in a universe apparently empty of meaning.
This lecture was recorded at Beloit College in Beloit, Wisconsin in 1969.
News & Updates
The Hindu goddess of music and learning is honored on Saraswati Puja [Oct. 12] near the end of the nine-day Navaratri festival. Saraswati is often artistically rendered in yellow robes playing a veena, precursor to the sitar.
Jainism requires nine days of dietary restrictions from the 12th to the 20th during Aymbil Ori.
The agrarian and pastoral roots of Zoroastrianism are evident as Ghambar Ayathrem begins October 12 celebrating the creation of plant life, the seeding of winter crops, and the return of herds from grazing in the pasturelands.
The death of Nichiren Shonin is observed October 13. To the end of his days, this unrelenting missionary held that the Lotus Sutra contained the highest truths available to humankind. He asked to be buried in Minobusan where he had spent the last nine years of his life in exile.
The 15th is designated by Hindu tradition as Dassehra, the victory of good over evil personified by the triumph of the Goddess Durga and Lord Rama over demonic powers.
Creation day, October 21, is set aside as the origin date of a great treatise by Shrimad Rajchandraji on the nature of Jainism.
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Upcoming Game, Last Soul, Uses Joseph Campbell as Basis For Story(learn more)