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Myth: The Grammar of Creativity

The Love Song, by Sir Edward Burne-Jones. 1868–77. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Public Domain.

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.

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 sortsOut the dark mysteries of human soulsTo clear conceiving: yet there ever rollsA vast idea before me, and I gleanTherefrom my liberty…  (Sleep and Poetry)


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,


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