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Voicing Joseph Campbell: How His Story Becomes Our Own

Heinrich Zimmer, c. 1933

My life long, I’ve loved the relationship between a big mind’s biography and the themes and patterns of their oeuvre. The two mirror one another comparatively, opening up the symbolic dimensions, refracting, reflecting, reiterating the same questions.

The patterns of an author’s lived experience, like the patterns worked out in their creative productions is, each one, a road map for the other. 

Thinking on this mirror, I’m captivated by the relationship between Joseph Campbell and his mentor, Indologist Heinrich Zimmer. I’m interested in this relationship in terms of its symbolic dimensions, as a kind of nutshell of a moment in Campbell’s journey, at mid-life, when Campbell met a literal personification of the kind of fathering and mentoring that frequently appear in Campbell’s writings.

Their story is wonderfully strange. When put up against Campbell’s other tales of meetings with remarkable figures of the historical moment, this story resembles the others in its synchronous magic and yet, it remains unique in Campbell’s trajectory. This particular relationship pivots Campbell. The transformational nature of their connection arrests me. It seems to hold a secret, as if ineluctable, in the two men’s fates. 

Zimmer’s death needs Campbell’s becoming.

Campbell’s becoming needed Zimmer’s mentorship. 

The bare bones of the story go something like this: They meet in 1940. Zimmer introduces Campbell to the founders of the Bollingen Foundation, the publishing platform that will become Campbell’s vehicle. For two years Campbell studies with Zimmer. And then, unexpectedly, in what should have been the prime of Zimmer’s creative career, he dies. It’s pneumonia. Zimmer’s widow asks Campbell to edit Zimmer’s work and guide it toward posthumous publication. The task takes 12 years. 

I like to think that this labor of love, the editing, voicing, shaping, finding the proper order of Zimmer’s writings, is initiatory for Campbell. 

What I do know for sure is that on the other end of those 12 years, Campbell’s career is launched. Before Zimmer, Campbell seems to be on a decades-long wanderlust, finding his way through equally grand adventures in reading, in his travels, and remarkable meetings with the minds of his day. I don’t know that Campbell’s voice and vision are quite locked in. During, through, and for sure, after Zimmer, Campbell hits a kind of prime. Campbell is deep in his poetic vision, scholarly work, and incredible synthetic voice.

When I read Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, and The King and the Corpse in particular, I am never quite sure where Zimmer ends and Campbell begins. I think of my own experience teaching Campbell, and how each and every voicing for a contemporary audience is a double initiation. I get to go back and through Campbell’s works, curating a journey for an audience who are being exposed, likely for the first time, to Campbell’s ideas, frames, and metaphors. The sharing is inextricable from my vision and version of Campbell. It is always an experience of the themes and threads I pull, because they delight me, or I see them as germane to the teaching.

What I wish for my students is that they go and read the original texts. And these days, more and more, that is a rarity. I remind myself that often the only chance these students may have to experience Campbell as a doorway, not only into the great stories of our culture, but a student’s connection into the way in which their own story is great too, is through my voicing of his work. In this role, I believe that I carry a grave responsibility to share Campbell as honestly, and with as much passion as I can. 

Campbell often remarked how grateful he was to Zimmer. I feel a version of that kind of gratitude for Campbell. Although we never met in reality, I’ve met Campbell a thousand times in my reading, and even in my dreams. Campbell mentored my intellectual becoming and taught me a heck of a lot about reading and teaching. Each and every time I give voice to Campbell’s import, Campbell comes alive for a fresh audience, in such a way that his legacy lives in that conversation anew, right now, in the present.

That nutshell of the pivotal relationship between Zimmer and Campbell became an imaginal relationship between Campbell and me. We can imagine our fictive fathers as mentors, initiating our intellectual becoming in remarkable meetings with their texts, which become plot points in the way we shape and see ideas. My sense is that the gratitude for such a rich relationship is actively lived into in our reading, in our thinking, in our writing, and in our conversations.

Like the great cultural historian Karl Weintraub—a real mentor for me—used to say, “We stand on the shoulders of giants.” It is the privilege of our life time to give voice to such a legacy.

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