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Passing Through Nature to Eternity: A Valediction for Jimmy Maxwell

Updated: Apr 30

Jimmy Maxwell, a white male wearing a tuxedo and glasses, smiling and looking dapper
Jimmy Maxwell

Sigmund Freud wrote that in our mourning, the world becomes “poor and empty.” I felt something like that sensation in the days after hearing the news that a dear friend and JCF colleague passed away. Some of you reading this were fortunate enough to have met or known the magical Jimmy Maxwell, a beguilingly kind, generous, good-humored man who seemed to have never met a stranger. Jimmy was a Joseph Campbell Foundation Fellow, one who achieved success in their individual field and volunteered their time and talent to JCF. For years Jimmy has been helping us sort through, compile, cross reference, digitize, and otherwise clean up our extensive audio collection of recorded Joseph Campbell lectures. It was an Augean task, and his efforts in this regard were invaluable.

Jimmy was a gifted and well-known bandleader, the pied piper of New Orleans live music generally and Mardi Gras specifically. The Jimmy Maxwell Orchestra is synonymous with the music of the New Orleans Mardi Gras and additionally, he was also the director of the Louis Armstrong Society Jazz Band. He has performed for U.S. presidents as well as members of the British royal family. He’s performed with the Neville Brothers, Harry Connick, Jr. (and Sr.), and for several years in the ‘80’s Jimmy partnered with Peter Duchin, the famed society band leader from New York City. In addition to being a first rate musician, he was a self-educated philosopher, but perhaps most of all, he was a story-teller. Whether musically or in quiet conversation, Jimmy enchanted, surprised, and captivated with his stories.

In addition to being a first rate musician, he was a self-educated philosopher, but perhaps most of all, he was a story-teller. Whether musically or in quiet conversation, Jimmy enchanted, surprised, and captivated with his stories.

But the one story he had the hardest time talking about, which is also the story that eventually brought Jimmy into our lives here at JCF, was the devastation wrought by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina upon his beloved New Orleans, her people, and his own psyche. Fortunately, Jimmy and his family were able to evacuate the city, but the loss of life among those who were unable to leave was staggering. The city was left in chaos, emergency services were overwhelmed, and the damage inflicted by the hurricane was appalling. Eighty percent of the city remained flooded for weeks and most of New Orleans's transportation and communication infrastructure were destroyed, leaving tens of thousands of residents struggling to survive with little access to food or shelter, and largely unable to meet even their most basic needs.

The life he had been living was gone, people he cared about, landmarks—both personal and public—were gone, wiped away by a pitiless, “once-in-a-century” flood. Jimmy once told me he felt “broken” by these events, and in their aftermath he had lived a strange sort of half life, not really alive but not dead either, feeling helpless to know what to do for himself. Jimmy had begun reading Joseph Campbell years before in his longstanding, determined effort to make sense of life’s vicissitudes and complexities, and the March following Katrina, searching for ways out of his despair, he decided to dive more deeply into Campbell’s work by attending a “playshop” called “Your Hero’s Journey: A Mythological Toolbox,” which was facilitated at Esalen by Robert Walter, who at that time was the Joseph Campbell Foundation president.

During the six-day playshop, through a range of deceptively playful exercises, participants in the playshop remember and explore significant life events and learn to recognize the human propensity to mythologize at work in their own lives. They gain a deeper understanding of the ways in which myth grows, evolves, and coalesces into a single, and singular, narrative. Participating in this workshop, one sees that the way one became oneself—how one was shaped and the patterns one’s life formed—isn’t accidental, nor is there at work a kind of supernaturally assigned destiny. The “self” is formed by a narrative woven together from a unique constellation of biological manifestations and personalized perspectives. And when life brings us to our knees, when we lose ourselves, it’s our helplessness that becomes our greatest asset.

In the universe of the Grail Legends it seems that everything and everyone is connected—in Wolfram’s Parzival this is particularly so, and by recognizing those connections Parzival receives help at every turn. In the beginning, Parzival is utterly helpless, it’s true, but it is precisely that helplessness which becomes the greatest tool in his toolbox; helplessness inspires magic—another way to say this may be to say that helplessness catalyzes creativity, it’s the activator of enchantment. Perhaps it is helplessness itself that desires and searches for the Grail. Helplessness is also the spring from which morality flows, it helps us recognize the good and the just and, importantly, love. In his book, The Future of an Illusion, Sigmund Freud saw helplessness as “…the primal source of all moral motives” and we learn through the experience of helplessness that what’s good for us is often good for others. I want it to be clear that I’m speaking of a particular kind of helplessness, a generative helplessness, a helplessness that is curious and determined to learn, helplessness that is anxious without panicking, earnest without being innocent, a helplessness born of the awe one feels standing in uncertainty overwhelmed by the sublime mystery of existence. Neurotic helplessness is needy, desperate, dependent, grasping, and greedy; the wrong sort of helplessness repels and nullifies love, but generative helplessness inspires love, perhaps that’s why the grail romances spend so much time describing romantic love and the helplessness and vulnerability that attend it.

Jimmy returned to the Esalen playshop the following year, and again for a third year, and every year thereafter for nearly two decades, because he found the playshop to be so nourishing and transformative. His relationship with Bob and with Campbell’s work became supremely important in developing his ability to make some sense of, to contextualize and reimagine the catastrophe of Katrina. Not only did Jimmy spontaneously provide and coordinate musical entertainment in the evenings after the day’s activities (as well as a grander production for the celebration of Campbell’s birthday which always fell during the week of the playshop), that third year at Esalen he began discussing ways to become more involved in the foundation. These discussions led Jimmy to take on the responsibilities for curating the audio database—digitizing, organizing, and enhancing the numerous lectures Campbell recorded over the course of his career, dating back to wire recordings made in 1941.

Jimmy was something of an autodidact, teaching himself not just sound engineering, the new digital technologies which were rapidly evolving, or Campbell and Schopenhauer. Most recently, right up until some weeks before his death, he was exploring and teaching himself about AI and all its diverse applications. Working with Joseph Campbell’s material helped him to make meaning out of seemingly meaningless tragedies and gave him exciting new insights into events with which he was long familiar. For instance, Campbell’s work helped him understand, for the first time, the mythic meaning underlying the Mardi Gras celebration. “They don’t realize what they’re doing!” he once remarked excitedly to Bob Walter as he unpacked the symbolism of Mardi Gras.

Finally, with a musician’s impeccable timing, Jimmy made the Great Leap into the mysterium on Leap Day, February 29th. Over the past several years Jimmy and I had conversations about death, his own and death in general—after all, it’s an irresistible topic and virtually dripping with inevitability. And yet, his indomitable joy in living, and his resolute determination to continue to do so, made it difficult to imagine that that day, Leap Day, would in fact, arrive.

Death is a fundamentally impenetrable mystery of life, and it’s a mystery that, no matter how desperately we seek answers from it and for it, remains indifferent to human inquiry. What we do know is that life and death define one another; we wouldn’t recognize the one without the other. They’re inextricably linked in such a way that it suggests to me that they are likely one and the same. It appears to be impossible to know with certainty anything about the most important features or aspects of life, and death is no exception. We lurch through life hoping to uncover some vital piece of information that will, at long last, free us from an existential detention center and let us finally and freely live, rather than merely survive. But science, theology, and philosophy have been epistemologically inadequate when it comes to navigating what the poet Theodore Roethke called that “dark world where the gods have lost their way.”

Therefore, we must here turn away from words and rather, feel or sense our way through the dark world, for this world is not made up of clearly drawn boundaries: up is not always up and down is not always down. Evil wins more often than it should, and good is sometimes mistaken for evil. That indistinctness, that grayness, covers the universe and embeds itself in time so that the very flow of it–its seconds, minutes, hours, and days–distorts, transforming one into another, making the languid second seem like days, while decades pass in the blink of an eye.

But there are hints of something in us, Walt Whitman insists, that is without name. It is

a word unsaid, it is not in any dictionary, utterance, symbol.

Something it swings on more than the earth I swing on,

To it the creation is the friend whose embracing awakes me.

Do you see O my brothers and sisters?

It is not chaos or death—it is form, union, plan—it is eternal life—it is Happiness.

Whitman goes on to say that he wishes he could find words to give to this presence, this indivisibility, this homogeneity, this indomitable, this perfect, inexhaustible dynamism of life…

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,

And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

Has any one supposed it lucky to be born?

I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it (Song of Myself).

It’s lucky to die?! I wish I could ask Jimmy if this is so. Pour a dram or two of a nice scotch and sit back while he regales me with tales of his sojourn through that “undiscovered country.” Perhaps he’d tell me the same thing Dante wrote in the Inferno: “Do not be Afraid; Our Fate Cannot be Taken From Us; it is a Gift.” Our fate is a gift. It’s lucky to die. Those like Walt Whitman, whose imagination was able to reach far enough into the Mysterium and pick up the straws in the wind, have always described an experience of death that is far, far removed from the mawkishly saccharine, schmaltzy idea of heaven or the ghastly, unrelenting and overdetermined image of hell. It seems, judging from such “letters from the front,” that the reality of it remains largely unimaginable, but death is without a doubt “different from what anyone supposed.”

The great challenge is to see that one’s own fate—the one life that we have and must live—is also the life that we must love and experience as fully as possible, despite everything and no matter what happens in the living of it.

However, there lies within the explorations of our own mortality an even greater achievement, a boon, if I might borrow a word from Campbell, and it is precisely this: to understand, as Dante did, that our fate will not, nor cannot, be taken from us. Our fate won’t be altered, renovated, or retrofitted. Despite all our efforts, we must live the life that we have. The great challenge is to see that one’s own fate—the one life that we have and must live—is also the life that we must love and experience as fully as possible, despite everything and no matter what happens in the living of it. The gift is discovered living this way, and it’s the most precious gift we could possibly receive, for by accepting our lives as they are, not needing or wanting anything to be different than it is, we make it possible to experience complete freedom.

Jimmy Maxwell certainly aimed to do that and, suffering his loss, sad are the daughters of Mnemosyne. Silent, too, is the house of weeping, wine-dark Dionysos.

Thanks for reading,

To learn more about the extraordinary life of Jimmy Maxwell, go to

MythBlast authored by:

A white male, wearing a black turtleneck and glasses.

Bradley Olson, Ph.D. is an author, speaker, and a psychotherapist. He serves as the Publications Director for the Joseph Campbell Foundation, as well as the Editor of the MythBlast Series and the host of JCF's flagship podcast, Pathways With Joseph Campbell. Dr. Olsonholds a Ph.D. in Mythological Studies from Pacifica Graduate Institute. Dr. OIson is also a depth psychologist in private practice in Flagstaff, Arizona, where he has lived since 1995. Dr. Olson has graduate degrees in psychology from the University of Oklahoma. Dr. Olson offers mythic life coaching at What's Mything in Your Life (

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