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Releasing the Dreamings


Joseph Campbell with his sister Alice in Paris, c. 1928. Copyright ©Joseph Campbell Foundation. All rights reserved.

When I was in graduate school studying mythology, I volunteered in the archives that housed Joseph Campbell’s papers. My job was to create high-resolution scans of Campbell’s personal photos—baby pictures, childhood, youth, adulthood, snapshots from his later years. Sitting at a workstation in that windowless basement office, I positioned each piece of paper on the glass face of the scanner, clicked the Scan button, then zoomed way in on the digital file to make sure to capture clean edges of the original. I often found myself staring at those close-up images, captivated by the eyes of the people in the scenes. My impression of Campbell himself changed as I worked. He became less of a disembodied voice on the page, and more of a real, actual person who seemed to have lived intensely and intentionally.  


Campbell’s book, Correspondence: 1927 – 1987, includes a letter he wrote to the artist Angela Gregory in 1928, when he was twenty-four years old. He writes: 


I know that the constant drumming of things around one can upset the pulse of one’s heart. But after all it’s inside our own hearts that beauty reposes. Pleasures and pains affect the body; and if our dreamings have never released our souls, then pleasures and pains will upset our mental and emotional tranquility. Aggravations and disappointments—and even a certain blankness can help the soul to grow in understanding, once the soul has learned to feed upon whatever comes its way. (13)


I can picture the passion in his young face as he composed these words. I can hear the urgency that would drive his voice if he were to speak them out loud. If our dreamings have never released our souls—he's talking about loosening the tendency to over-identify with the trappings of our lives, our religions and belief systems, desires, political ideas, relationships, and even our bodies, and mistake them for who we really are. The alternative to letting those dreamings hold our souls captive, he suggests, is to release our souls not from our ideas about life, but from confusing them with our ideas about life. To grant our souls the freedom to observe our experiences the same way Campbell demonstrates how to observe myth—staying alert for truth and beauty. 


Further down the page he completes the thought: 


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.


Living intensely. Living wide awake, with our souls free and released. These are aspirational ideas, no doubt, but Campbell seems to have done a reasonable job of it, releasing his soul from identification with his dreamings, living intensely in the direction of truth and beauty, doing great work. This is one of the boons that Campbell found on the journey of his own life, and he brought it back to share with us, his community: not only his work itself, but also his wayof working. He showed us that aspirations like these are within reach. 


This boon also opens the possibility of communities that support their members living intensely and doing great work. For what is a community if not an aggregate of individuals, and what is an individual if not a representative of their community? The souls of individuals affect the community, and the soul of the community affects individuals. This dialectic is fundamental to creative work. Creative people, like Joseph Campbell and Angela Gregory, continually move back and forth between their communities and their individual imaginations to generate images and ideas, bring them into being, and share them. I see this pattern play out again and again in the community of mythologists—a community that owes so much to Campbell’s contributions.


So perhaps we might be permitted to imagine a revision of Campbell’s reflections to Angela Gregory, this time as a message to his extended community:  


I know that the constant drumming of things around us can upset the pulse of our hearts. But after all it’s inside our own hearts that beauty reposes. Pleasures and pains affect us all; and if our collective dreamings have never released our community’s soul, then pleasures and pains will upset the community’s mental and emotional tranquility. Aggravations and disappointments—and even a certain blankness can help the community’s soul to grow in understanding…When the community shall have lived this intensely, the community will have truth in its heart and beauty—then our work will be great because we shall be great.


And isn’t myth itself intense? Its outsized imagery, its larger-than-life deities and heroes, its clashings and collaborations among characters who represent the great powers of Earth and cosmos? Myths are collective dreamings of Earth’s human communities, and so they represent a perfect practice ground for zooming in on their images and ideas, freeing our souls from identifying with those ideas, and thereby cultivating truth and beauty in our own creative hearts.


How might a community release its soul from false beliefs, dis-identifying from myths that cause misery and harm? How can a community enter more fully into the realm of truth, beauty, and creativity?

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