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The Blooming of Truth: Campbell on the Mythic Past


Once Upon a Midnight Dreary. Illustration to The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe. Édouard Manet, 1875. Public Domain.

Edgar Allan Poe once wrote a little piece called “The Imp of the Perverse,” and I do believe that there must be in the fashioners of piously held beliefs, all over the world, an exceptionally strong strain of the faculty and impulse that he there describes; for it cannot be that they do not know what they are doing. Neither can it be that they regard themselves as deceivers. Nevertheless, they are seldom satisfied merely to brew for the moral nourishment of mankind an amusing little beer of what they know to be their own apocryphal fantasy, but they must needs present their intoxicant with deliberately pompous mien as the ambrosia of some well of truth to which they, in their state of soul, have been given access. It is exactly as my author, Poe, has said. “All metaphysicianism,” as he terms such work, “has been concocted a priori. The intellectual or logical man, rather than the understanding or observant man, set himself to imagine designs —to dictate purposes to God. Having thus fathomed, to his satisfaction, the intentions of Jehovah, out of these intentions he built his innumerable systems of mind.” And with a curious strain of the same perversion by which the sages teach their designs, both vulgar and the learned everywhere have been forever loath to see any such facts brought to light as might tend to inform them of the true nature of the brews by which they live, dream, and regulate our lives. (The Masks of God: Oriental Mythology 518-519)


Although we tend to think of the Campbellian enterprise of Mythological Studies as providing honey-sweet “positive” content for our lives, passages like the ones above tell a slightly different story, more critical of the positivity of mythic ideology. As a consequence of this double task, both affirmative and critical, any piece of mythological studies issues a call to confront the traumatic truths of our mythic past, the composition of the brew of our national ideology, forcing us to come face to face with the imp of the perversity of mythic consciousness.  


In "The Imp of the Perverse," Poe anticipates such notions of depth psychology, later developed by Freud and Jung, as the Id (The Thing) and the Shadow. With this level of psychoanalytic insight, Campbell can easily explain to himself the “curious strain of the same perversion by which the sages teach their designs,” and the great resistance of “both vulgar and the learned everywhere” to “forever loathe […] any such facts brought to light as might tend to inform them of the true nature of the brews by which they live, dream, and regulate our lives” – Namely, the true nature of what we adopt as our “personal mythology": the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves which are mostly lies. 


For it is generally acknowledged that if we want to get to know someone, we cannot base our judgement solely on what this individual thinks about herself; Instead, we must turn to the content of this person’s actions in order to know their true character. Sometimes these self-serving fantasies are crushingly belittling, sometimes narcissistically self-aggrandizing, but any sympathetic observer and listener would recognize at once the perversity of such “personal mythology.”


What is true of the individual is also true of entire nations and their mythic pasts. We all have to deal with the imp of perversion at the heart of our founding narratives. For without this shadow work, without this making conscious of the unconscious lie, the true blooming of mythology cannot come to pass.


As with the psychotherapy of the individual so it is with entire nations; the problem is not so much the "creation of a new myth" but the elimination of repressive elements that block the spontaneous outpouring of mytho-historic truth. This is the reason that a well-trained psychotherapist will refrain from providing “answers'' or assigning “meaning” to an individual’s life, no matter how much they may beg for it. A significant part of working through the transference, the spontaneous co-dependence of the patient to the analyst, is to free the individual from this delusion. For it is taken for granted that delusions are never good for the life of the soul. 


“Truth is the ultimate repressed,” as Wolfgang Giegerich states in The Soul’s Logical Life (217).


What is ultimately repressed in the depths of the psyche is not some mysterious “self“ waiting in the wings, nor is it the intensity of sexuality, but a painful truth that speaks at the place where the psyche must enter the flesh. For there is the existential rub, the irrepressible edge of the symptom, where the unconscious mind forces itself upon the conscious ego and breaks down all its defense mechanisms. 


So when we advocate for the “non-binary” logic of myth as the logic of both/and over against either/or, we should not forget the full implication of this proposition: that the logic of both/and must include either/or as its internal complementary opposition. Otherwise we remain caught in the literal split of external opposites. True myth thus operates through the logic of both/and and either/or, following the paradoxical logos of the soul, as an upsurge of the mythic imagination into the material light of history.


Hence, we would do myth a disservice were we to relegate it to the purely metaphoric or personal realm of make-believe and wish-fulfillment—where we can have everything both ways and speak out of both corners of our mouths. No, that is not the true nature of myth but the work of the imp Campbell and Poe warned us about. If we believe that myth truly matters, on the other hand, we must turn to the material truth of its existential mystery. It is when myth is allowed to bloom in truth that it becomes living history.

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