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The Power of the Personal: Flight of the Wild Gander

Two herons and a goose. Unknown artist, Edo period (1615 - 1868) Japan. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives, used via Smithsonian. CC 0.

Anytime I read, and especially reread, Joseph Campbell’s books, I feel like I am in a personal conversation with a priest or a confessor, one who understands the need for the transcendent in our lives and is prepared to point me in the right direction. I think this feeling emerges because Campbell’s storytelling gene is a part of all of his utterances, but especially when he works a concept by morphing it into a narrative. 

In this collection of essays he states his purpose as shaman and guide: “to lift the veil, so to say, of that Goddess of the ancient temple of Sais,” who affirmed for all time, “no one has lifted my veil.” (xi) This metaphor is one of the constants of Campbell’s own heroic writer’s journey: to enter that terrain where the veil thinly separates the phenomenal world from the treasures of the mythic structures that support it. Bird and Goddess, flight and veil, oscillate and communicate throughout the essays. The wild gander is a rich metaphor for “Hindu master yogis,” who in their trance states, go beyond all boundaries of thought and are best known as “hamsas and paramhamsas: “’wild ganders’ and “’supreme wild ganders.’” (The Flight of the Wild Gander: Selected Essays 1944-1968, 134) This, and other comments like it, brought me years ago to write a piece on “Joseph Campbell: Irish Mystic.”

Such an image serves as a still point in a rotating circle of themes, but the one I find most captivating is that of “brahman-atman, the ultimate transcendent yet immanent ground of all being” which makes possible the yogi “passing from the sphere of waking consciousness. . .to the unconditioned, nondual state ‘between two thoughts,’ where the subject-object polarity is completely transcended. . .” (135) 

The mythic motif Campbell spirals back to repeatedly is the quest for the crack, the gap, the thin membrane that allows him to glimpse and discern the symbolic, transcendent nature of the world winking back at us with not a little seduction, through the mask of the sensate realms of the human- and world-body in their fragility and mystery. Such is one of the many masks of gods that reveal the yearned-for archetypal compost of myth. 

Following Campbell’s thought like one starving for nutrients, would track the thin line of bread crumbs that if followed with humility and curiosity, leads one to the realm of mystery, while feeding one’s soul in the process. One of his favorite nutritious repasts consisted of the belief that myths allow us to move as if in a transport vehicle from the sensate order to one where we become transparent to transcendence. The veil lifts ever-so-slightly in this moment of meaning, but not before having the rich human experience, of which the residue or after-burn is meaning-making. 

I have sensed, as have other lovers of Campbell’s work, that his rich mythodology is syncretistic, gathering and clustering, then ultimately clarifying the connective tissue between disciplines to uncover the vast complexity of the human and world psyche on their arc towards unity. He is both hunter and gatherer, spanning centuries of development in human evolution. 

Which persuades us to glance with double vision at both myth and history, one inside the other, one connecting and transforming the other. We might, in Campbellian fashion, play with our own metaphor here at the end. Here is my image: the invisible lining of a jacket or coat is what I would call history’s inner myth; it gives shape and contour to the outer sleeve, which is history itself. Yes, the sleeve can be turned inside-out to reveal the hidden myth, and that is part of Campbell’s mode of excavation: he turns the sleeve inside-out in order to explore the mystery shaping history. Ok, not quite a veil, but certainly another form of fabric-ation. 

Nor can myths be divorced from the inventions and discoveries of the time in which they surface. Indeed, I sense in Campbell that myths survive by accommodating such discoveries, especially those of science. This discipline has knocked down the walls “from around all mythologies—every single one of them—by the findings and works of modern scientific discovery.” (81) 

And then the wild gander takes flight once again to accommodate the new mythic template. Let it not land too quickly. 


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