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The Grateful Dead, Adult Entertainment, and Native Tongues

Tie-dye by Lisa Ann Yount, 2007. Public Domain.

Recently, I engaged in verbal combat with a friend over whether Joseph Campbell would have liked the TV show Game of Thrones. Imagining great thinkers interacting with the cultural phenomena of contemporary life is not simply a fantasy; such moments have actually occurred in history. Campbell famously attended a Grateful Dead concert near the end of his life and commented about being reminded of Dionysian festivals. These are the historical anecdotes that make conversations about the mythologist dissecting Games of Thrones so fun. Campbell was a man not completely uninterested in what we sometimes term entertainment, but he did always seem to be asking more from art than a mindless baptism.

The word entertainment has come to encompass a great number of varied activities. There are a few differing theories as to the etymology of the word. One favorite is that it derives from a combination of Old French and Latin words and loosely translates to “to hold together.” From Doctor Faustus to Dr. Dre, from Hesiod to Harry Potter, from Theseus to The Bachelor – people have been held together by common resonance with characters, narratives, poems, and images for thousands of years.

In The Ecstasy of Being, Campbell gives a brief overview of the development of the theatrical arts. Specifically, he traces the movement up through the nineteenth century away from a theatrical interest in mythology and legend towards a historical and biographical interest, and the significant losses that resulted. “The experience and understanding of myth as the language of man’s spiritual life had, in fact, been lost,” Campbell asserts.

Campbell then offers a rather curious comment, referring to the common worldview of this myth-less era. He says, “Truly serious theater should deal with existential agonies; adult entertainment, with erotic spectacles and comedies; while the inward, spiritual life was something to be attended to in churches, having to do (it was supposed), not with mythology, but with a true history of incredible (hence spiritual) events, as reported (by God himself) in the Bible.” (The Ecstasy of Being, 92) Campbell goes on to celebrate the return of the import of myth toward the opening of the twentieth century and the impact it had on poets and artists of every stripe.

In the twentieth century, theater continued to deal with “existential agonies.” There was no shortage of “erotic spectacles and comedies” even after myth-inspired work again experienced a revival. In short, the “adult entertainment” that Campbell referred to had not disappeared. Instead it had been integrated with the mythological. The theatrical world again embraced that inward spiritual life which had been left to the clergy. Erotic spectacles and comedies were not, and are not, outside the realm of the meaningful. However, those devoid of mythological underpinnings produce momentary titillation, but lack the sort of inner evocative movement which, as those who’ve experienced it know, can be difficult to articulate. Of course, most entertainment is subjective, and as the old saying goes, one person’s trash is another’s treasure. What speaks mythologically to one of us may not speak at all to the next. What may be one person’s “adult entertainment,” however you choose to define that term, is another’s transcendent art.

Even today, many are surprised that Campbell resonated with the work of the Grateful Dead. For anyone who has taken the time to explore their lyrics, there is little surprise, of course. Despite having become so associated with Star Wars, Campbell seemingly had little interest in pop culture or popular entertainment. On the other hand, a significant amount of his work centered on art created by others –Joyce, Goethe, and Martha Graham all received attention from Campbell’s pen. The difference was whether the entertainment created by the artist was crafted on the invisible mythological framework Campbell spent so much of his life trying to describe. This is true entertainment — that activity which brings us back to the original intentions of the word. It holds us together. If Campbell was correct and myth is the language of our spiritual lives, when we hear it through stories in any medium, be it in rock music or print or streaming video, we are being spoken to in our most native tongue. We are being brought together – held together – through the narratives and images that have made us one since the beginning.

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