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Joseph Campbell: A Normal, Beautiful, Standard Life

Joseph Campbell at the University of Paris, c. 1927

The text we’re highlighting this month is Correspondence: 1927-1987, which offers selections of Joseph Campbell’s correspondence over the last 60 years of his life. I have long loved reading the correspondence of people who have intrigued, inspired, and awed me; the selected letters of Keats touch me more deeply than his poetry. For me, reading personal letters like these creates an intimate moment with people I’ve never met, yet would have loved to have known. I get to travel back in time and see ideas unfold in situ, how they develop in the minds of the thinkers who think them. 

Campbell’s ideas, his intellectual development, his spirited exchanges with other remarkable minds and talents of his time, may all be recognized in this fascinating collection. But unlike his work, the man remains strangely inaccessible, a bit alien to me. Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, and Woolf, for example, all seem to some degree recognizable to me as people, at least as my people. I can feel, somehow, that I know them, that I’m familiar with their “type.” I see that I share elements of their psychology and character—perhaps a kind of existential burden, or a feeling that one must fight to find one’s place in the world—that makes them feel familiar to me. Campbell’s remarkable charisma, self-confidence, self-discipline, and his self-awareness regarding his gifts (both intellectual and physical) set him apart and make him seem to me a bit more remote than I would like, something like the mythic figures he himself writes so compellingly about. He is as strange and wondrous to my sensibilities as are Socrates, Wilde, or Whitman. It seems, as the old saying goes, that the world was his oyster, with an r in every month (a reference to a bygone injunction that one should only eat oysters in months with an r in them, from September to April, to avoid food poisoning). 

For example, on page 2 of Correspondence, there is a picture of a bronze bust made by Campbell’s close friend and artist, Angela Gregory. How many 23-year olds can say, at that tender age, a bronze bust of their head has been cast? In his letter thanking her, he writes of a “certain vigor,” an energy and an attitude which, I believe, should be understood as archetypal:

Angel, I think that chez-vous and chez-moi there are souls which have attained a certain vigor. Our mental attitude—our wisdom should help these souls to grow—to mount with every experience. When we shall have lived this intensely we should have truth in our hearts and beauty—then our work will be great because we shall be great ourselves. (Correspondence, p. 13)

Beauty, not only the beauty of the heart, but beauty in the natural world, enchanted him. The 27-year old’s description of the Arizona desert around Phoenix (where I’ve spent the best part of my adult life) has a particularly lovely resonance for me: “…I passed from the grip of the sublime to that of the beautiful. The desert was a good deal more voluptuous, I think, than any girl I’ve ever seen.” (p. 19) The imagery of myth was, for the whole of Campbell’s life, “grounded in nature.” (p. 304)

But it wasn’t simply the beauty and mystery of the natural world that captivated Campbell. The beauty and mystery of the inner world—which is itself a part of the natural world and serves to connect us to the external world of nature as well as facilitate a deep connection to others—was equally captivating:   

[…] there are many aspects of the grand lines of nature. One, the world without. Two, the world within. And two aspects of the world within: that which is put upon you by the society as to the mode and field of your life in existence, and that to which you undoubtedly, at this stage in your life, have already become gradually aware. Namely, the peculiar talents, the peculiar possibilities, of your lives, your individual lives. Different from all other lives. And yet, walking along the same grand road with others, so that you will find when you have come to the end of your course, that although you may have lived a life completely yours, looking back you will see that it has been a normal, beautiful standard life of the sort you share with many. (p. 295)

I think that human beings are not unlike ideas or facts; we exist, true, but we are too often misunderstood and unrecognized for our real significance. We’re misconstrued, misdiagnosed, misguided, misjudged, misquoted, misread, and often maligned. This, perhaps, is particularly true when the individual in question, like Joseph Campbell, is well known for a body of work that has become so important to so many. Because his work is so well known, because he has been dead for more than 30 years, he has become more an idea rather than a person, and everyone has her own idea of what Campbell is, who he should remain. He has become, as W.H. Auden wrote of Freud, “no more a person now but a whole climate of opinion.”


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