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At the Party: My Selves and Sundries

From Correspondence: 1927 – 1987 (The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell):

[Barbara Morgan (July 8, 1900 – August 17, 1992) was an American photographer best known for her depictions of modern dancers. She was a cofounder of the photography magazine ‘Aperture.’]

Barbara Morgan Studio

High Point Road

Scarsdale, New York

Post-Valentine’s Day, 1968

Dear Jean & Joe:

Since I had to vanish from the Van Waveren’s party for you – in order to get my Volkswagen over the tundra to Scarsdale before the werewolves entered my empty house – I didn’t get to finally say what a superb totality it was in all its complexity made understandable – your lecture series.

And I also wanted to tell you partly for fun and partly for real – the following – my photographer reflexes make me always both consciously and unconsciously watch other people’s gestures (even when I have no intention of doing so), reflexes, shifts of mood, etc. – and so by the next-to-last-evening I suddenly realized that your ‘gestural aggregate’ (so to speak) meant for me – at least two things –

  1. That you are first of all a reincarnated Bard and/or Shaman – and that only –

  2. Secondly, you are a contemporary scholar. When you would pause in your discussion to quote or chant – an entirely different psyche took over. There was an inner glee – a magnetic something – your own individuality happily slid into another collective – ancient – embracing – psyche. It was like a snake casting off old skin and you glowed anew with security of speaking for the Eternal. (And there was a special gleam for the demonic).

Then – chanting over – you took up the duties of logical thought as a 20th Century man, inheritor of our rat race traumas & trajectories from the past – seeking inner logic & harmony for mankind’s future. But then here came the next realization – these two phases were ‘integrated’ and slid back & forth like gears in a Cadillac. But, for me, that more primordial element will henceforth be ‘there,’ the genuine Joe, from which all springs no matter how many PHD’S.


f we were together I would laugh at this point – so you can take it or leave it.


Well – I’ll leave you in peace – I’m in bed with this flu ‘bug’ – hence these flights of fancy –Again – thanks –Love – Barbara

Figuratively speaking, we are all at Van Waveren’s party, at least for much of the time. The party posture—any party posture—bears unspoken behavioral mores, accepted mannerisms, and maneuvers: “reflexes,” “shifts of mood, ” a “gestural aggregate.” But occasionally we step out of the party’s script. We become something other: a self that lives and speaks out of a deeper authenticity and authority. Perhaps this deeper Self connects to a primordial, even eternal Psyche.

If we are sufficiently conscious and skilled, we might observe the party members at play. Rather than mere voyeurism, this observing can be of healthy interest when asking ourselves, “What are the embedded gestures and response patterns that control me in this and similar situations? What are my habitual trigger reactions? Through what persona veils do I peer? And what costumes do I wear? Am I longing to press my ego onto the collective soul of the party? And why exactly do I want to impress? Is it insecurity? A consuming need to belong? Competitive egotism?”

I feel that deep down we all want to be at one with ourselves, others, and the universe. This means that we not only want to belong... but we also want to become. We want to journey towards a deeper Ground, where our essential Identity resides, even if this journey demands that we exist and walk along an unscripted path.

But the deeper Ground is bare. At its deepest, it’s utterly naked, undisguised and without elaboration. Given this, it’s best to seek this condition along all stages of travel, with the mirror of objectivity by our side—the mirror by which we may more reliably observe our progress.


The great religious texts have pointed to the necessity of encountering our hidden nakedness—the concealed, aspirational, unadulterated Self, whether this Self be a mighty Primal archetype or sensed as a simple, vulnerable babe. “[...] For there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known.” (Words from the “Gospel of Matthew.”) We may employ these words in respect to the path of Individuation.

While on the path towards Individuation, personas (and pretensions) are gradually stripped away. This is a journey towards the Awakening and Actualization of the Self. And paradoxically (or so it may seem at first), when the individual has become fully Individuated, they take on many faces and expressions as this Individuated Self responds to every new encounter. Then being and becoming are completely present and responsive to the living request of the moment.

The lengthy preamble above prompts us to consider how we may meet and speak to each other (and to the larger society) in ways that engender a more rounded perspective and greater capacity for empowerment. In this we become mindful of how we are fashioning ourselves in the world. Can we find—and engage—with that bedrock of ourselves, that aspect that endures? And, when required, move beyond the familiar social prescriptions and identity frames?

Self-observation is to be joined with the desire to cultivate an open, receptive heart. When a presenter or writer shares something genuine from the heart about their own life’s journey, the offering arises from within the soul’s steadier depths. In parallel, it’s also helpful to develop some ability to speak and write imaginatively with word pictures, similes, metaphors and the like. Also required is an artistic sensitivity, so that we may adjust our message intuitively according to what, in the moment, seems most soul-alive in the people whom we’re addressing. With practice this may be done without compromising academic content or intellectual rigor. 

Inevitably in this porous process, we expose something of our nakedness and vulnerabilities. As we intentionally present ourselves to others, we signal that we are on a journey where our body of knowledge and personal understanding have not arrived at finality. 

Hans Christian Andersen’s folktale “The Emperor’s New Clothes” may instruct us. The innocent, unscripted child can be viewed as the envoy of the emerging, larger Self. This child can see beyond the pretense and the deceptions: “But he has nothing on at all!” Unlike the Emperor in the folktale, deep down we are all true Emperors. But what costumes at the party, if any, are we wearing?




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